Rediscovering my curiosity at Creative Melbourne

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As I write this I am somewhere over the middle of Australia, flying back to Perth after participating in a 3 day event that was fun, challenging and highly insightful. The conference was Creative Melbourne, and I am proud to say I was one of the inaugural speakers. If they want me back again, I will do it in a heartbeat, and I hope a lot of you come along for the ride.

CreativeMelbourne-1

The premise: practical co-creation…

First the background… I have known the conference organiser, Arthur Shelley, for a few years. We first met at a Knowledge Management conference in Canberra and though I have no recollection of how we got talking, I do recall we clicked fairly quickly. At the time I was starting to explore the ideas around ambiguity, which eventually formed my second book. Back then I had a chip on my shoulder about how topics like complexity, Design Thinking and collaboration were being taught to students. I felt that the creative and fun parts glossed over the true stress and cognitive overload of wicked problems. This would produce highly idealistic students who would fall flat on their face once they hit a situation that was truly wicked. I therefore questioned whether anything was being built into students mental armory for the inevitable pain to come.

Now for some people who operate and teach in this space, making such a statement immediately and understandably gets their defenses up. But not Arthur – he listened to everything I had to say, and showed me examples of how he structured his courses and teachings to deal with this challenge. It was impressive stuff: every time his students thought they had a handle on things, Arthur would introduce a curveball or a change they were not anticipating. In other words, while teaching the techniques, he was building their capacity for handling ambiguous situations. Little did I know his conference was about to do the same to me…

One thing about Arthur that blows me away constantly is his incredible network of practitioners in this space. Arthur has long had a vision for bringing a constellation of such practitioners together and he hand-picked a bunch of us from all over the world. The premise, was to create an event that had a highly practical focus. He wanted practitioners to help attendees “Discover creative techniques to enhance performance and engage your team back at the office to increase productivity.”

Now where did I leave my curiosity?

While I am a sensemaking practitioner, I’ll admit straight up that I get irritated at the “fluffiness” and rampant idealism in this space. A good example is Design Thinking in this respect. While I like it and apply ideas from it to my practice, I dislike it when Design Thinking proponents claim it to be suited to wicked problems. The reality is the examples and case studies often cited are rarely wicked at all (at least in the way the term was originally conceived). When I see this sort of thing happening, it leaves me wondering if proponents have truly been in a complex, contingent situation and had the chance to stress test their ideas.

Now I don’t apologise for critically examining the claims made by anyone, but I do apologise for the unfortunate side effect – becoming overly contrarian. In my case, after all these years of research, reading and practice in this field, I am at the point where I see most new ideas as not actually new and are rediscoveries of past truths. Accordingly, it has been a long time since I felt that sense of exhilaration from having my mental molecules rearranged from a new idea. It makes sense right? I mean, the more you learn about something, the more your mental canvas has been painted on. In my case I already have a powerful arsenal of useful tools and approaches that I call upon when needed and more importantly, I was never on a spiritual quest for the one perfect answer to the mysteries of organsiational life anyway.

In short, I have what I need to do what I do. The only problem is somewhere along the line I lost the very sense of curiosity that started me along the path in the first place. It took Arthur, fellow presenters like Stuart French, Jamie Bartie, Jean-Charles Cailliez, Meredith Lewis, Brad Adriaanse, Vadim Shiryaev and a diverse group of participants to help me rediscover it…

Disrupting the disruptor…

Imagine someone like me participating in day 1, where we did things like build structures out of straws, put on silly hats, used the metaphor of zoo animals to understand behaviors, arm-wrestled to make a point about implicit assumptions and looked at how artists activate physical space and what we could learn from it when designing collaborative spaces. There was some hippie stuff going on here and my contrarian brain would sometimes trigger a reflexive reaction. I would suddenly realise I was tense and have to tell myself to relax. Sometimes my mind would instinctively retort with something like “Yeah right… try that in a politicised billion dollar construction project…” More than once I suppressed that instinct, telling myself “shut up brain – you are making assumptions and are biased. Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”

That evening I confided to a couple of people that I felt out of place. Perhaps I was better suited to a “Making decisions in situations of high uncertainty and high cognitive overload” conference instead. I was a little fearful that I would kill the positive vibe of day 1 once I got to my session. No-one wants to be the party pooper…

Day 2 rolled around and when it was my turn to present. I held back a little on the “world according to Paul” stuff. I wanted to challenge people but was unsure of their tolerance for it – especially around my claims of rampant idealism that I mentioned earlier. I needn’t have worried though, as the speaker after me, Karuna Ramanathan from Singapore, ended up saying a lot of what I wanted to say and did a much better job. My talk was the appetizer to his “reality check” main course. He brilliantly articulated common organsiational archetypes and why some of the day 1 rhetoric often hits a brick wall. It was this talk that validated I did belong in this community after all. Arthur had indeed done his homework with his choice of speakers.

That same afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Melbourne with Jamie Bartie, who showed us all sorts of examples of cultural gems in Melbourne that were hiding in plain sight. The moral of the story was similar to day 1… that we often look past things and have challenge ourselves to look deeper. This time around my day 1 concerns had evaporated and I was able to be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. I spoke to Jamie at length that evening and we bonded over a common childhood love of cult shows like Monkey Magic. I also discovered another kung-fu movie fan in Meredith Lewis, who showed me a whole new way to frame conversations to get people to reveal more about themselves, and develop richer personal relationships along the way.

Petcha Kucha – Getting to a point…

Day 3 was a bit of a watershed moment for me for two reasons. Months prior, I had accepted an invitation from Stuart French to participate in his Petcha Kucha session. At the time I said “yes” without really looking into what it entailed. The gist is you do a presentation of 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide, all timed so they change whether you are ready or not. This forces you to be incredibly disciplined with delivering your talk, which I found very hard because I was so used to “winging it” in presentations. Despite keynoting conferences with hundreds of people in the room, doing a Petcha Kucha to a smaller, more intimate group was much more nerve-racking. I had to forcibly switch off my tangential brain because as soon as I had a thought bubble, the slides would advance and I would fall behind and lose my momentum. It took a lot of focus for me to suppress my thought bubbles but it was worth it. In short, a Petcha Kucha is a fantastic tool to test one’s mental muscles and enforce discipline. I highly recommend that everyone give it a go – especially creative types who tend to be a bit “all over the place”. It was a master-stoke from Stuart to introduce the technique to this audience and I think it needs to be expanded next time.

I presented the first Petcha Kucha, followed by Stuart and then Brad Adriaanse, who described the OODA Loop philosophy. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act, providing a way to break out of one’s existing dogma and reformulate paradigms, allowing you to better adapt to changing circumstances. Dilbert cartoons aptly shows us that we all have incomplete (and often inconsistent) world views which should be continually refined and adapted in the face of new observations. Brad put it nicely when he said OODA was about maintaining a fluid cognitive state and that assumptions can be a straightjacket and dogma can blind us. This really hit home for me, based on how I reacted at times on day 1. Brad also said that the OODA loop can be internalised by adopting a lifelong learning mindset, being curious and become more and more comfortable with ambiguity.

It was at this exact moment where I rediscovered my latent curiosity and understood why I felt the way I did on day 1 and 2. It was also at this moment that I realised Arthur Shelley’s genius in why he made this event happen, who he brought together and what he has created in this event. All attendees need to be disrupted. Some need their idealism challenged, and some, like me, need a reminder of what started us on this path in the first place.

I have returned a better practitioner for it… Thankyou Arthur

 

Paul Culmsee

p.s Arthur Shelley is still a giant hippie

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Teddies, Fetishes and the Management Consulting Scam

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jediteddy.jpg

What if I told you that the key to becoming a successful management consultant was to become a Teddy Bear?

What if I also told you that it involves fetishes? You might be re-checking the URL to make sure you are on the right site!

Fear not, this article is definitely not “50 Shades of Management Consulting Grey”. Nor is it about donning a cuddly animal suit as a mascot for a football team. To borrow from the much loved children’s TV show “Playschool,” there’s definitely a bear in there, but not the one you might be thinking!

You see, for many people, modern corporate life is now at a point where pace of change is accelerating, unrelenting and fatiguing. In my home state of Western Australia, businesses are reeling from unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty, be it the end of the commodity boom, the impact of global competition or disruptive, technology-enabled innovation. It is now difficult to think of any industry that has not had the ground shift beneath it in some way — except perhaps, for Management Consulting.

Management Consulting thrives in an environment of fear, ambiguity and doubt, principally because its business model is based on the presumption that they can make it go away. It’s lucrative too — ambiguity is such a powerful force that executives will part with copious amounts of cash in attempts to escape it…

read the full article at medium.com

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My new book about Teddies and fetishes is out…

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cover7

 

Hi all

I am pleased to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity is now available in ebook format (The print edition is still a couple of weeks away). Once again I wrote this with Kailash Awati and is a loose sequel to our first book, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might enjoy this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one, and I would say, less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could probably just say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that. I’m sure someone would think that we have moved into erotic fiction Smile

Unfortunately for those looking for some titillation, I’m afraid we did not write a management version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, we aim to help readers understand how ambiguity affects the human behaviour and more importantly how it can be harnessed it in positive ways. We noticed that most management techniques (eg strategic planning, project management or operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and provide clarity. Yet in a great irony of modern corporate life, they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities and it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa and expecting that you can recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is…

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate ambiguity with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets, providing them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

base teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens you, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity (as well as your own).

jediteddysithteddy

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively – something to be avoided or to be controlled. The truth, however, is that it is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.This new management book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve outstanding results.

The book should be available via most online outlets.

Paul

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So what is this newfangled apps model anyway and why do I care? (part 3)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Apps Model
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Hiya

This is the third post in some articles aimed helping strategic or business focused users understand the SharePoint 2013 and Office365 “apps model”, and what it means for the future of SharePoint. In part 1 of this series, I outlined the opportunities and challenges that Microsoft are currently trying to addressing. They were:

  • Changing perceptions to cloud technologies and increased adoption; which enables…
  • The big scary bogeyman known as Google with a viable alternative to SharePoint, Office and Exchange in the form of Google Apps; as well as…
  • An increasing number of smaller cloud-based “point solution” players who chip away at SharePoint features with cheaper and easier to use offerings; while suffering from…
  • A serious case of Apple envy and in particularly the rise of the app and the app marketplace; while dealing with…
  • Customers unable to handle the ever increasing complexity of SharePoint, leading to delaying upgrades for years

These reasons prompted Microsoft’s to take a strongly cloud driven strategy and have really been transforming their business to deliver it. They really have transitioned from a software provider to an application hosting provider and in terms of SharePoint, the “apps” model is now the future of customisation.

Now “apps” is a multifaceted topic and the word has been overused unfortunately. So in part two we started to unpack the apps model by channelling the kids TV show playshcool to show the idea of SharePoint customisations being hosted on separate servers, but presenting a seamless experience for users.

If you never read part 1 and 2, I seriously suggest you do. To whet your appetite, here are some pretty diagrams to highlight what you missed out on!

image image  image

The main point I made was the notion that custom SharePoint components ran on separate, non SharePoint servers and were embedded into SharePoint via Iframes. These remote apps then communicate securely with SharePoint (eg read or write data from lists) via web services.

I concluded part 2 by showing the benefits of the apps model from Microsoft’s perspective. Among other things, this model of developing custom SharePoint solutions can be supported on Office365 and on-premises. For on-premises customers, SharePoint servers remain pristine and free of the muck and clutter of 3rd party code, making service packs and cumulative updates much less complex and costly. It also enables Microsoft to offer an app store, where 3rd party vendors can maintain cloud based services that can be embedded and consumed by on-premises and online SharePoint installs. If you go back to the 5 key strategic threats I started this post with, it addresses each one nicely.

So Microsoft’s intent is good, and there is nothing wrong with good intentions… or is there?

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Digging deeper

So where does one start with unpacking the apps model? Let’s make this a little less of a dry read by channelling Big Bang Theory to find out. First up, Penny wants to know where app data stored is stored, given that the app runs on a different server to SharePoint as shown below. (If you think about it, from apps perspective – SharePoint is the remote server).

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Sheldon’s answer? (Of course Sheldon invented the apps model right)…

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Er… come again? Let’s see if Leonard can give a clearer explanation…

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Leonard’s explanation is a little better. Ultimately the app developer has the choice over where app data is stored. For example, let’s say someone writes a survey app for SharePoint and it renders on the home page via an iframe. When users fill in this poll, the results could be stored on the server that hosts the app and not SharePoint at all (which in SharePoint terms is referred to as the remote web). Alternatively, the app could store the survey results in a list on a SharePoint site which the app is being invoked from (this is called the host web). Yet another alternative is something called the App Web, which I  will return to in a moment.

First lets look at the pros and cons of the first two options.

Option A: Store App Data in SharePoint Lists

If the app developer chooses this approach, the app reads/writes to SharePoint lists in the site where the app is deployed (henceforth called the host web). In this approach, when a site administrator chooses to add an app to the site, the app has to specify the level of access is required for the site, and it asks the site admin to authorise this access. In the image below, you can see that this Kodak app is requesting the ability to edit or delete items in document libraries and lists on this site, as well as access user profile information. If the site administrator clicks “Trust it”, the app now has the access it needs.

image

The pro to this approach is that all app data resides in regular old SharePoint, where it is searchable and can take advantage of all of the goodies that lists and libraries give you like versioning, information management policies and workflow. Additionally, multiple apps can access these lists, so this allows for the development of componentised solutions that work with a single authoritative data source.

The potential cons (or implications to be aware of) to the approach are:

  • SharePoint lists and libraries are not always an appropriate data stores for some types of data. Most people are well aware now that a SharePoint list is most definitely not a relational database and it has performance issues when misused (among other things). SharePoint also has in-built thresholds that kick in when lists get big (list queries that generate a result set of 5000 or more items will fail by default). Microsoft state in their SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online solution packs documentation “If your business needs require you to work with large data sets and query result sets, this approach won’t work”.
  • If the app has been deployed to many sites and site collections (and uses lists on each), then things can get painful if a new version of the app requires a new or modified set of columns on the list in the host web.
  • if you delete the app from the host web, the list data remains on the site as the lists will likely not be deleted. Sometimes this is a good thing as the data might be important or used in other ways, but if the app developer is storing configuration data here, would leave orphaned data in the site.

Also think about what happens when you have an on-premises SharePoint server but the app is hosted by a 3rd party outside your firewall. How is the remote app even able to get to your SharePoint box in the first place? To enable this to happen, you are likely going to need to talk to your network/security people because you are going to need some funky firewall/reverse proxy infrastructure to allow that to happen. Additionally, some organisations might be uncomfortable that an app from a 3rd party on the interweb can have the ability to read and write data inside an internal SharePoint server anyway.

So what alternatives are there here?

Option B: Store data in the remote app

The other option for the app developer is to store the app data on the same server the app is running from (called the remote web). In this approach, no data is stored in SharePoint at all. The pros for this option is that it alleviates two of the issues from option A above in that developers can use any data storage system they want (eg SQL Server, a GIS system or a graph database) and you do not have any of those pesky firewall issues with the app connecting back to your SharePoint server. The app renders in its iframe and does its thing.

Unfortunately this also has some cons.

  • There are potential data sovereignty issues. Where is the remote app hosted? Are you sure you trust the 3rd party app provider with your data? Consider that a 3rd party might host an app for many organisations. Do they have adequate precautions for keeping your data isolated and secure (ie Is your stuff stored in a separate database to everyone else?) Are they adequately backing up that data consistent with your internal standards? If you uninstall the app, is the data also uninstalled at the app provider end?
  • This data is very likely not searchable or easily usable by SharePoint for other purposes as it is not necessarily directly accessible by SharePoint.
  • Chances are that the app will have to talk to SharePoint in some way, so you really don’t get out of dealing with your network/security people to make it all work if the remote web is outside your firewall.
  • Also consider data integrity. if say, you needed to restore SharePoint because of a data loss or data corruption issue, what does this mean for the data stored on the remote app? will things get out of sync?

These (and other questions) bring us to the next option that is a bit of a mind-bending middle ground.

Option C: Store data in the App Web

Now here is where things start to mess with your head quite a bit. Most people can understand the idea behind option A and B, but what the heck is this thing known as an app web? The short answer, it is a special SharePoint sub-site that is used for certain apps. It usually gets created when a site administrator adds an app to a site and importantly, removed when a site administrator removes the app. If you consider the diagrams below we can see our mythical SharePoint 2013 homepage with 3 apps on it, all running on separate servers as explained in part 2. If we assume each of these apps have deployed an app web on our SharePoint site, there are now three SharePoint sub-sites created underneath it as shown below. These are the app webs.

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Now app webs are no ordinary subsites in the way you might know them now. For a start, if you tried to access them from your SharePoint host web, you would not be able to at all. Through some trickery, SharePoint puts these sites on a completely different URL than the site where the apps were installed. For example, if you had a site called http://myintranet/sites/web1 and you added a survey app, a subsite exists but it would absolutely not be http://myintranet/sites/web1/survey or anything like that. It would instead look something like:

http://app-afb952fd75de4a.apps.mycompany/sites/web1/surveyapp/

Now being a business audience reading this, trust me that there are good reasons for this apparent weirdness related to security which I will speak to in the next post.

But if this makes sense so far, then in some ways, one can argue that an app web is a weird cross between option A and B in that it is a subsite on your SharePoint farm, yet SharePoint treats it as if it is a remote data store. This means the app web is a special isolated storage area for app developers to put stuff like data, configuration, CSS, JavaScript and whatever other functionality their app needs to do its thing.

This approach has some advantages:

  • The app web is technically a SharePoint site, so app developers can create whatever structure they need (think lists, libraries and columns) to store their stuff like images, css, JavaScript and other goodies. This allows for much more flexible data structures that can easily be accommodated that writing to the odd list in a host web (Option A above)
  • The app web lives is on your SharePoint server, so it means some app components (and data) can be stored here instead of on a remote web on a server far away from you. When you back up your configuration database, the app web is backed up like everything else. (Less data integrity risk than option B).
  • The app web facilitates clean install/uninstall of an app, since the app web is removed if an app is removed. In other words, no more orphaned data lying around

But if you think all of those points through, you might see several important implications:

  • If the app developer decided to store critical app data in the app web, when the app is uninstalled that data is lost (or put better, developers have to write special uninstall code to copy the data somewhere else which means yet more code)
  • Just like option A, SharePoint lists and libraries are not always an appropriate data stores for some types of data. (remember the list item threshold I mentioned in option A? They also apply here too)
  • Apps cannot share app webs between them. In other words, apps cannot reach in and access data from other app webs. Therefore you can’t easily use the information stored in app webs with other apps and applications. In fact if you want to do this you pretty much have to choose option A. Store the shared data apps need in the host web and have both apps access that data
  • You may end up with many many app webs. If you take my example above there are 3 app webs to handle 3 apps. What if this was a project site template and your organisation has hundreds of projects. That means you have thousands of app webs, all with potentially interesting data that trapped in mini information silos.
  • SharePoint search cannot index the app webs
  • A critical but often overlooked one is that developers can’t update the library/list metadata schema in an app web (think columns, content types, libraries, etc) without updating and redeploying the app. As you will see in a future post, this gets real ugly real fast!
  • SharePoint App Webs are created with special templates which block SharePoint Designer (that’s probably a good thing given the purpose of an app web)

Conclusion

So if you are a non-developer reading this post, consider that none of the above options are on their own, likely to give you a solution. For each option, there seems to be just as many advantages as flaws. The reality is that many apps will use at least two, or even all three options. Things like images, css and javascript might be loaded from the app web, some critical reusable SharePoint content from the host web and the remote web for some heavy duty data manipulation.

If you think that through, that means as SharePoint administrators and governance teams, you will likely end up dealing with all of the cons of each of the options. Imagine asking a developer to conceptually draw an app that uses each of the options and consider how many “moving parts” there are to it all. Then when you add the fact that most organisations still have a legacy of full trust solutions to deal with, you can start to see how complex this will be to manage.

Now this really is just the tip of the iceberg. In the next post I am going to talk a little about how all this stuff is wired up from an authentication and security standpoint. I am also going to focus on the application lifecycle management implications of this model. If you think about the picture I have painted here with all of the potential moving parts, how to you think an upgrade to an app would fare?

thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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So what is this newfangled apps model anyway and why do I care? (part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Apps Model
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Hiya

This is the second post in some articles aimed at demystifying the SharePoint “apps” model for the strategic or business focused user. In case you are not aware, Microsoft have gotten a serious case of “app fever” in recent times, introducing the terminology not only into SharePoint, but Office as well. While there are very good reasons for this happening, Microsoft used the “app” terminology in multiple ways, therefore making their message rather confusing. As a result, Microsoft have not communicated their intent particularly well and customers often fail to understand why they make the changes that they do.

Things are definitely getting better, but I nevertheless see a lot of confusion around the topic. So in part 1 of this series, I explained the reasons Microsoft have adopted the strategy that they have done. To recap, they are trying to respond to five major disruptive forces that challenge their market position:

  • Changing perceptions to cloud technologies and increased adoption; which enables…
  • The big scary bogeyman known as Google with a viable alternative to SharePoint, Office and Exchange in the form of Google Apps; as well as…
  • An increasing number of smaller cloud-based “point solution” players who chip away at SharePoint features with cheaper and easier to use offerings; while suffering from…
  • A serious case of Apple envy and in particularly the rise of the app and the app marketplace; while dealing with…
  • Customers unable to handle the ever increasing complexity of SharePoint, leading to delaying upgrades for years

Microsoft’s answer to this has to go all-in with cloud, as this is the only way to beat the cloud providers at their own game, while reducing the complexity burden on their customers.  This of course is in the form of Office365, OneDrive and an ever increasing set of cloud oriented tools like Delve and Project Online.

But in SharePoint land, this has turned traditional development upside down. More than a decade of customisation “best practices” are no longer best – in fact they are no longer usable in many circumstances. The main reason is that the most common method of customisation normally applied to SharePoint (full-trust server side code) is not permitted in the cloud. Microsoft couldn’t risk untrusted, 3rd party custom code on their servers. What happens if one clients dodgy code affects everybody else sharing the service? This would threaten performance, uptime and Microsoft’s ability to upgrade their service over time.

So things had to change. Microsoft’s small army of product architects commandeered a whiteboard and started architecting innovative solutions to deal with these challenges and the apps model is the result. So let’s examine some core bits to the apps model by channelling a much loved children’s TV show.

There is a bear in there…

Now at this point I have to warn the developers or tech people writing this post. I am going to give a simplified version of the apps model intended for a decision making audience. I will omit many details I don’t deem necessary to make my key points. You have been warned…

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Any parent of small children in most countries might be familiar with Playschool – a show for toddlers that has been around for eons. It is well known for its theme song starting with the line “There is a bear in there…and a chair as well”. When trying to come up with a suitable way to explain the SharePoint apps model, using Playschool as a metaphor turned out to work brilliantly. You see in each episode of Playschool, there was a segment where viewers were taken through the “magic window” to faraway lands. In the show, the presenter would pick one of the three windows and we would zoom into it, resulting in a transition to another segment. In our case, we have to pick the square window for two reasons. Firstly, a good many apps are in effect windows to somewhere else. Secondly, and much more importantly, it perfectly matches the new Microsoft corporate logo. Perfect metaphor or what eh? 🙂

Like the Playschool magic window, browsers have a similar capability to enable you to visit strange and magical lands… Not only is there a bear in there and a chair as well, but there are plenty of other things like YouTube videos and Yammer discussions. I have drawn this conceptually shown below. Note the black window in the SharePoint team site on the left, that can be filled with YouTube or Yammer.

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You have no doubt visited web sites that have embedded content like YouTube videos or SlideShare slides in them (This blog site has lots of embedded ads that make me no money!). Essentially, it is possible for browsers to include content from different sites together into a single “page” experience. Users see it all as one page, even through content can come from all over the place. This is really useful, because it means you can leverage the capability of other sites to enhance the functionality of your own sites..

This my friends, is one of the core tenets of the current SharePoint 2013 apps model. Instead of running on the SharePoint server, many apps now run separately from SharePoint, embedded in SharePoint pages so that they look like they are part of SharePoint. In the example mock-up below, we have a SharePoint team site. In it, we have a remote web site that displays some pretty dashboard data. By loading that emote content into our magical square window, it now appears a part of SharePoint.

image       image

Going back to Microsoft’s core pain points, this helps things a lot. For a start, it means no custom code has to be installed onto the SharePoint server. Instead, SharePoint simply embeds the external content on the page. In the leftmost image above, you can see the SharePoint server (labelled as “Your server”), rendering a page with a placeholder in it. It then retrieves content from a remote server (labelled “my server”) and displays it in the placeholder to render the complete page (the rightmost image above).

So what feat of Microsoft innovation and general awesomeness enabled this to happen?

Everybody meet “Mr IFrame”.

Inline Frames (IFrames) are windows cut into your webpage that allow your visitor to view content on another site without reloading the entire page. The concept was first implemented in Microsoft Internet Explorer way back in 1997. Yep – you heard right… 1997. So IFrames are not a new concept at all – in fact its positively ancient when you count time in internet years. For this reason, when developers find this out, their reaction is usually something like this…

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But there is more than meets the eye…

Now if the apps model was just IFrames alone, then you you might wonder what the big deal is with apps. In fact IFrames have been used this way in SharePoint for years via the Page Viewer Web Part. For years, companies with SharePoint deployments have embedded stuff like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook widgets via iFrames.

So of course, there is more to it…

Let’s revisit the “your server” and “my server” diagram used above and consider the question.. What if these remote applications displayed inside an iFrame can interact with SharePoint? In other words, What if the remote application running on my remote server is able to connect to your SharePoint server and read/write data? In the diagram below I have illustrated the idea. The top half of the diagram represents a SharePoint server that could be on-premises or an Office365 tenant. On the left is a Products list, that is somewhere inside this SharePoint server. At the bottom is my application running on my server that creates a pretty dashboard. What if my remote application queried the SharePoint products list to create the dashboard? Now we have an application, that while not running inside SharePoint, can nevertheless utilise live data from SharePoint to create a seamless experience for users.

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If we now add 3 iframes to a page, the implications should start to become more clear. We can build hybrid solutions leveraging the best of what SharePoint can do, whilst leveraging the best of what other platforms can do. To the user, these are still SharePoint sites, but the reality is that we are now viewing a page that has been delivered by various different platforms. Each can interact with SharePoint data in different ways to deliver a seamless experience. Because these remote apps are not SharePoint at all, developers can write any application they want to, using the platform and tools of their choice. But to the user it is still a SharePoint page… neat huh? I’m sure the Microsoft product team thought that this was a brilliant conceptual masterpiece when they dreamt it up.

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A beautiful model…

I don’t know if you have ever watched developers come up with API’s, but it tends to be a lot of excitement around a whiteboard as they revel in the glory of their elegant solution designs. So let’s quickly re-examne the benefits of this remotely hosted app approach from Microsoft’s perspective and see how we are going so far…

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First and foremost, we now have SharePoint customisation approach that they can be fully support in Office365. Microsoft don’t have to put code on their online servers, yet can support extensibility. Now they are much more evenly matched with Google, while at the same time, reduce their tech support costs of SharePoint because they have isolated 3rd party code out of SharePoint. If any problems are encountered with a remote app, SharePoint will keep humming along and Microsoft can now legitimately tell the clients “no really it is not SharePoint causing your issue – go see your friendly neighbourhood app developer”.

More importantly since apps can also can be used in on-premises SharePoint deployments too, meaning both Microsoft and their customers now have pristine SharePoint servers free of the muck and clutter of 3rd party code. Therefore service packs and cumulative updates should no longer strike fear into admins. Microsoft also now nails google’s ass because Google has no real concept of on-premises at all in the way Microsoft does. Thus when hybrid scenarios come up in conversation, Microsoft has a much stronger story to tell.

But there is a more important implication than all of that. Microsoft can now do the app store thing. Vendors can maintain cloud based services that can be embedded and consumed by on-premises and online SharePoint installs. This means 3rd parties can tap into the customer ecosystem with a captive marketplace and customers can browse the store to examine what options are out there to extend SharePoint functionality. In theory, this should enable hundreds of vendors to do some slight modifications to their existing web based applications and incorporate them into the SharePoint ecosystem.

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But reality is not what’s on the whiteboard…

At this point, I hope I have painted a pretty good picture of the advantages offered by this new paradigm and you can probably appreciate the Microsoft nerds completely falling in love with this conceptual model of future SharePoint customsiations. The Microsoft strategy dudes probably loved it too because it elegantly dealt with all of the challenges they were seeing. Unfortunately though, with most conceptual models, reality is a very different beast from the convenient fiction of models.

So in the next post, we are going to dig a little deeper. For example, how can a remote app even have permissions to talk to SharePoint in the first place? Do you really want code running in some untrusted 3rd party server to be fiddling with data in your SharePoint lists and libraries? How does that even work anyway in an on-premises scenario when a cloud hosted app has to access data behind your firewall?

Fear not though – the Microsoft guys thought of this (and more) when they were drawing their apps model concept on the big whiteboard. So in the next post, we are going to look at what it takes to bring this conceptual masterpiece into reality.

 

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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So what is this newfangled apps model anyway and why do I care? (part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Apps Model
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Hiya

I’ve been meaning to write about the topic of the apps model of SharePoint 2013 for a while now, because it is a topic I am both fascinated and slightly repulsed by. While lots of really excellent material is out there on the apps model (not to mention a few good rants by the usual suspects as well), it is understandably written by developers tasked with making sense of it all, so they can put the model into practice delivering solutions for their clients or organisations.

I spent considerable time reading and researching the various articles and videos on this topic produced by Microsoft and the broader SharePoint community and made a large IBIS map of it. As I slowly got my head around it all, subtle, but significant implications begin to emerge for me. The more I got to know this topic, the more I realised that the opportunities and risks of the apps model holds many important insights and lessons for how organisations should be strategically thinking about SharePoint. In other words, it is not so much about the apps model itself, but what the apps model represents for organisations who have invested into the SharePoint platform.

So these posts are squarely aimed at the business camp. Therefore I am going to skip all sorts of things that I don’t deem necessary to make my points. Developers in particular may find it frustrating that I gloss over certain things, give not quite technically correct explanations and focus on seemingly trivial matters. But like I said, you are not my audience anyway.

So let’s see if we can work out what motivated Microsoft head in this direction and make such a significant change. As always, context is everything…

As it once was…

I want you to picture Microsoft in 2011. SharePoint 2010 has come out to positive reviews and well and truly cemented itself in the market. It adorns the right place in multiple Gartner magic quadrants, demand for talent is outstripping supply and many organsiations are busy embarking on costly projects to migrate from their legacy SharePoint 2007 and 2003 deployments, on the basis that this version has fixed all the problems and that they will definitely get it right this time around. As a result, SharePoint is selling like hotcakes and is about to crack the 2 billion dollar revenue barrier for Microsoft. Consultants are also doing well in this time since someone has to help organsiations get all of that upgrade work done. Life is good… allegedly.

But even before the release of SharePoint 2010, winds of change were starting to blow. In fact, way back in 2008, at my first ever talk at a SharePoint conference, I showed the Microsoft pie chart of buzzwords and asked the crowd what other buzzwords were missing. The answer that I anticipated and received was of course “cloud”, which was good because I had created a new version of the pie and invited Microsoft to license it from me. Unfortunately no-one called.

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Winds of change…

While my cloud picture was aimed at a few cheap laughs at the time, it holds an important lesson. Early in the release cycle of SharePoint 2007, cloud was already beginning to influence people’s thinking. Quickly, services traditionally hosted within organisations began to appear online, requiring a swipe of the credit card each month from the opex budget which made CFO’s happy. A good example is Dropbox which was founded in 2008. By 2010, won over the hearts and minds of many people who were using FTP. Point solutions such as Salesforce appeared, which further demonstrated how the the competitive landscape was starting to heat up. These smaller, more nimble organsiations were competing successfully on the basis of simplicity and focus on doing one thing well, while taking implementation complexity away.

Now while these developments were on Microsoft’s radar, there was really only one company that seriously scared them. That was Google via their Google Docs product. Here was a company just as big and powerful as Microsoft, playing in Microsoft’s patch using Microsoft’s own approach of chasing the enterprise by bundling products and services together. This emerged as a credible alternative to not only SharePoint, but to Office and Exchange as well.

Some of you might be thinking that Apple was just a big a threat to Microsoft as Google. But Microsoft viewed Apple through the eyes of envy, as opposed to a straight out threat. Apple created new markets that Microsoft wanted a piece of, but Apple’s threat to their core enterprise offerings remained limited. Nevertheless, Microsoft’s strong case of crimson green Apple envy did have a strategic element. Firstly, someone at Microsoft decided to read the disruptive innovation book and decided that disruptive was obviously cool. Secondly, they saw the power of the app store and how quickly it enabled an developer ecosystem and community to emerge, which created barriers for the competition wanting to enter the market later.

Meanwhile, deeper in the bowels of Microsoft, two parallel problems were emerging. Firstly, it was taking an eternity to work through an increasingly large backlog of tech support calls for SharePoint. Clients would call, complaining of slow performance, broken deployments after updates, unhandled exceptions and so on. More often than not though, these issues had were not caused by the base SharePoint platform, but via a combination of SharePoint and custom code that leaked memory, chewed CPU or just plain broke. Troubleshooting and isolating the root cause very difficult which led to the second problem. Some of Microsoft’s biggest enterprise customers were postponing or not bothering with upgrades to SharePoint 2010. They deemed it too complex, costly and not worth the trouble. For others, they were simply too scared to mess with what they had.

A perfect storm of threats

image  image

So to sum up the situation, Microsoft were (and still are) dealing with five major forces:

  • Changing perceptions to cloud technologies (and the opex pricing that comes with it)
  • The big scary bogeyman known as Google with a viable alternative to SharePoint, Office and Exchange
  • An increasing number of smaller point solution players who chip away at SharePoint features with cheaper and easier to use offerings
  • A serious case of Apple envy and in particularly the rise of the app and the app marketplace
  • Customers unable to contend with the ever increasing complexity of SharePoint and putting off upgrades

So what would you do if you were Microsoft? What would your strategy be to thrive in this paradigm?

Now Microsoft is a big organisation, which affords it the luxury of engaging expensive management consultants, change managers and corporate coaches. Despite the fact that it doesn’t take an MBA to realise that just a couple of these factors alone combine as a threat to the future of SharePoint, lots of strategic workshops were no doubt had with associated whiteboard diagrams, postit notes, dodgy team building games and more than one SWOT analyses to confirm the strategic threats they faced were a clear and present danger. The conclusion drawn? Microsoft had to put cloud at the centrepiece of their strategy. After all, how else can you bring the fight to the annoying cloud upstarts, stave off the serious Google threat, all the while reducing the complexity burden on their customers?

A new weapon and new challenges…

In 2011, Microsoft debuted Office365 as the first salvo in their quest to mitigate threats and take on their competitors at their own game. It combined Exchange, Lync and SharePoint 2010 – packaging them up in a per-user per month approach. The value proposition for some of Microsoft’s customers was pretty compelling because up-front capital costs reduced significantly, they now could get the benefits of better scalability, bigger limits on things like mailboxes, while procurement and deployment was pretty easy compared to doing it in-house. Given the heritage of SharePoint, Exchange and Lync, Microsoft was suddenly competitive enough to put Google firmly on the back foot. My own business dumped gmail and took up Office365 at this time, and have used it since.

Of course, there were many problems that had to be solved. Microsoft was now switching from a software provider to a service provider which necessitated new thinking, processes, skills and infrastructure internally. But outside of Microsoft there were bigger implications. The change from software provider to service provider did not go down well with many Microsoft partners who performed that role prior. It also freaked out a lot of sysadmins who suddenly realised their job of maintaining servers was changing. (Many are still in denial to this day). But more importantly there was a big implication for development and customisation of SharePoint. This all happened mid-way through the life-cycle of SharePoint 2010 and that version was not fully architected for cloud. First and foremost, Microsoft were not about to transfer the problem of dodgy 3rd party customisations onto their servers. Recall that they were getting heaps of support calls that were not core SharePoint issues, but caused by custom code written by 3rd parties. Imagine that in a cloud scenario when multiple clients share the same servers. This means that that one clients dodgy code could have a detrimental effect on everybody else, affecting SLA’s while not solving the core problem Microsoft were having of wearing the cost and blame via tech support calls for problems not of their doing.

So with Office365, Microsoft had little choice but to disallow the dominant approach to SharePoint customisation that had been used for a long time. Developers could no longer use the methods they had come to know and love if a client wanted to use Office 365. This meant that the consultancies who employed them would have to change their approach too, and customers would have to adjust their expectations as well. Office365 was now a much more restricted environment than the freedom of on-premises.

Is it little wonder then, that one of Microsoft’s big focus areas for SharePoint 2013 was to come up with a way to readdress the balance. They needed a customisation model that allowed a consistent approach, whether you chose to keep SharePoint on-premises, or move off to the cloudy world of Office 365. As you will see in the next post, that is not a simple challenge,. The magnitude of change required was going to be significant and some pain was going to have to happen all around.

Coming next…

So with that background set, I will spend time in the next post explaining the apps model in non technical terms, explaining how it helps to address all of the above issues. This is actually quite a challenge, but with the right dodgy metaphors, its definitely possible. 🙂 Then we will take a more critical viewpoint of the apps model, and finally, see what this whole saga tells us about how we should be thinking about SharePoint in the future…

thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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Help me visualise the pros and cons of hybrid SharePoint 2013…

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Like it or not, there is a tectonic shift going on in the IT industry right now, driven primarily by the availability of a huge variety of services hosted in the cloud. Over the last few years, organisations are increasingly procuring services that are not hosted locally, much to the chagrin of many an server hugging IT guy who understandably, sees various risks with entrusting your fate to someone else.

We all know that Microsoft had a big focus on trying to reach feature parity between on-premises SharePoint 2013 and Office365. In other words, with cloud computing as a centrepiece of their strategy, Microsoft’s SharePoint 2013 aim was for stuff that both works on premises, but also also works on Office 365 without too much modification. While SharePoint 2013 made significant inroads into meeting this goal (apps model developers might beg to differ), the big theme to really emerge was that feature parity was a relatively small part of the puzzle. What has happened since the release of SharePoint 2013, is that many organisations are much more interested in hybrid scenarios. That is, utilising on-premises SharePoint along with cloud hosted SharePoint and its associated capabilities like OneDrive and Office Web Applications.

So while it is great that SharePoint online can do the same things as on-prem, it all amounts to naught if they cannot integrate well together. Without decent integration, we are left with a lot of manual work to maintain what is effectively two separate SharePoint farms and we all know what excessive manual maintenance brings over time…

Microsoft to their credit have been quick to recognise that hybrid is where the real action is at, and have been addressing this emerging need with a ton of published material, as well as adding new hybrid functionality with service packs and related updates. But if you have read the material, you can attest that there is a lot of it and it spans many topic areas (authentication alone is a complex area in itself). In fact, the sheer volume and pace of material released by Microsoft show that hybrid is a huge and very complex topic, which begs a really critical question…

Where are we now at with hybrid? Is it a solid enough value proposition for organisations?

This is a question that a) I might be able to help you answer and b) you can probably help me answer…

Visualising complex topics…

A few months back, I started issue mapping all of the material I could get my hands on related to hybrid SharePoint deployments. If you are not aware, Issue mapping is a way of visualising rationale and I find it a brilliant personal learning tool. It allows me to read complex articles and boil them down to the core questions, answers, pros and cons of the various topics. The maps are easy to read for others, and they allow me to make my critical thinking visible. As a result, clients also like these maps because they provide a single integrated place where they can explore topics in an engaging, visual way, instead of working their way through complex whitepapers.

If you wish to jump straight in and have a look around, click here to access my map on Hybrid SharePoint 2013 deployments. You will need to sign in using a facebook or gmail ID to do so. But be sure to come back and read the rest of this post, as I need your help…

But for the rest of you, if you are wondering what my hybrid SharePoint map looks like, without jumping straight in, check out the screenshots below. The tool I am using is called Glyma (glimmer), which allows these maps to use developed and consumed using SharePoint itself. First up, we have a very simple map, showing the topic we are discussing.

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If you click the plus sign next to the “Hybrid SharePoint deployments” idea node, we can see that I mapped all of the various hybrid pros and cons I have come across in my readings and discussions. Given that hybrid SharePoint is a complex topic, there are lots of pros and cons as shown in the partial image below…

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Many of the pros and cons can be expanded further, which delves deeper into the topics. A single click expands one node level, and a double click expands the entire branch. To illustrate, consider the image below. One of the cons is around many of the search related caveats with hybrid that can easily trip people up. I have expanded the con node and the sub question below it.  Also notice hat one of the idea nodes has an attachment icon. I will get to that in a moment…

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As I mentioned above, one of the idea nodes titled “SPO search sometimes has delays on low long it takes for new content to appear in the index” has an attachment icon as well as more nodes below it. Let’s click that attachment icon and expand that node. It turns out that I picked this up when I read Chris O’Brien’s excellent article and so I have embedded his original article to that node. Now you can read the full detail of his article for yourself, as well as understand how his article fits into a broader context.

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It is not just written content either. If I move further up the map, you will see some nodes have video’s tagged to them. When Microsoft released the videos to 2014’s Vegas conference, I found all sorts of interesting nuggets of information that was not in the whitepapers. Below is an example of how I tagged one of the Vegas video’s to one of my nodes.

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A call to action…

SharePoint hybrid is a very complex topic and right now, has a lot of material scattered around the place. This map allows people, both technical and non technical, to grasp the issue in a more strategic, bigger picture way, while still providing the necessary detail to aid implementation.

I continually update this map as I learn more about this topic from various sources, and that is where you come in. If you have had to work around a curly issue, or if you have had a massive win with a hybrid deployment, get in touch and let me know about it. It can be a reference to an article, a skype conversation or anything, The Glyma system can accommodate many sources of information.

More importantly, would you like to help me curate the map on this topic? After all, things move fast the SharePoint community rarely stands still. So If you are up to speed on this topic or have expertise to share, get in touch with me. I can give you access to this map to help with its ongoing development. With the right meeting of the minds, this map could turn into an incredible valuable information resource to a great many people.

So get in touch if you want to put your expertise out there…

 

Thanks for reading

 

 

Paul Culmsee

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“Assumption is the mother of all f**k ups”

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My business partner, Chris Tomich, is the John Deacon of Seven Sigma.

In case you do not know who John Deacon is, he is the bass player from Queen who usually said very little publicly and didn’t write that many songs (and by songs I mean blog posts). But when Deacon finally did getting around to writing a song, they tended to be big – think Another One Bites the Dust, I Want To Break Free and Your My Best Friend.

Chris is like that, which is a pity for the SharePoint community because he outstanding SharePoint architect, software engineer and one of the best Dialogue Mappers on the planet. If he had the time to write on his learning and insight, the community would have a very valuable resource. So this is why I am pleased that he has started writing what will be a series of articles on how he utilises Dialogue Mapping in practice, which is guaranteed to be much less verbose than my own hyperbole but probably much more useful to many readers. The title of my post here is a direct quote from his first article, so do yourself a favour and have a read it if you want a different perspective on sense-making.

The article is called From Analyst to Sense-maker and can be found here:

http://mymemorysucks.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/from-analyst-to-sense-maker/#!

thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

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p.s Now all I need to do is get my other Business Partner, mild mannered intellectual juggernaut known as Peter (Yoda) Chow to start writing Smile

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Trials or tribulation? Inside SharePoint 2013 workflows–conclusion and reflections

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Workflow
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Hi all

In case you have not been paying attention, I’ve churned out a large series of posts – twelve in all – on the topic of SharePoint Designer 2013 workflows. The premise of the series was to answer a couple of questions:

1.  Is there enough workflow functionality in SharePoint 2013 to avoid having to jump straight to 3rd party tools?

2. Is there enough workflow functionality to enable and empower citizen developers to create lightweight solutions to solve organisational problems?

To answer these questions, I took a relatively simple real world scenario to illustrate what the journey looks like. Well – sort of simple in the sense that I deliberately chose a scenario that involved managed metadata. Because of this seemingly innocuous information architecture decision, we encountered SharePoint default settings that break stuff, crazy error messages that make no sense, learnt all about REST/oData, JSON, a dash of CAML and mastered the Fiddler tool to make sense of it all. We learnt a few SharePoint (and non SharePoint) web services, played with new features like dictionaries, loops and stages. Hopefully, if you have stuck with me as we progressed through this series, you have a much better understanding of the power and potential peril of this technology.

So where does that leave us with our questions?

In terms of the question of whether this edition enables you to avoid 3rd party tools – I think the answer is an absolute yes for SharePoint Foundation and a qualified yes for everything else. On the plus side, the new architecture certainly addresses some of the previous scalability issues and the ability to call web services and parse the data returned, opens up all sorts of really interesting possibilities. If “no custom development” solutions are your mantra (which is really “no managed code” usually) , then you have at your disposal a powerful development tool. Don’t forget that I have shown you a glimpse of what can be done. Very clever people like Fabian WIlliams have taken it much further than me, such as creating new SharePoint lists, creating no code timer jobs and creating your own declarative workflows – probably the most interesting feature of all.

In a nutshell, with this version, many things that were only possible in Visual Studio now become very doable using SharePoint Designer – especially important for Office365 scenarios.

So then, why a qualified yes as opposed to an enthusiastic yes?

Because it is still all so… how do I put this…  so #$%#ing fiddly!

Fiddly is just a euphemism for complexity, and in SharePoint it manifests in the minefield of caveats and “watch out for…” type of advice that SharePoint consultants often have to give. It has afflicted SharePoint since the very beginning and Microsoft are seemingly powerless to address it while they address issues of complexity by making things more complex. As an example: Here is my initial workflow action to assign the process owner a task from part 2. One single, simple action that looks up the process owner based on the organisation column.

image_thumb43  image

Now the above solution never worked of course because managed metadata columns are not supported in the list item filtering capability of SPD workflows. Yes, we were able to work around the issue successfully without sacrificing our information architecture, but take a look below at the price we paid in terms of complexity to achieve it. From one action to dozens. Whilst I prefer this in a workflow rather than in Visual studio and compiled to a WSP file, it required a working knowledge of JSON, REST/oData, CAML and debugging HTTP traffic via Fiddler. Not exactly the tools of your average information worker or citizen developer.

image_thumb10  image_thumb18    image_thumb22

image_thumb25  image_thumb27  image_thumb14

A lot of code above to assign a task to someone eh?

Another consideration on the 3rd party vs. out of the box discussion is of course all of the features that the 3rd party workflow tools have. The most obvious example is a decent forms solution. Whilst InfoPath still is around, the fact that Microsoft did precisely nothing with it in SharePoint 2013 and removed support for its use in SharePoint 2013 workflows suggests that they won’t have a change of heart anytime soon.

In fact, my prediction is that Microsoft are working on their own forms based solution and will be seriously bolstering workflow capability in SharePoint vNext. They will create many additional declarative workflow actions, and probably model a hybrid forms solution that works in a similar way to the way Nintex live forms does. Why I do I think this? It’s just a hunch, based on the observation that a lot of the plumbing to do this is there in SharePoint 2013/Workflow Manager and also that there is a serious gap in the forms story in SharePoint 2013. How else will they be able to tell a good multi-device story going forward?

But perhaps the ultimate lead indicator to the suitability of this new functionality to citizen developers is to gauge feedback from citizen developers who took the time to understand the twelve articles I wrote. In fact, if you are truly evil IT manager, concerned with the risk of information worker committing SharePoint atrocities, then get your potential citizen developers to read this series of articles as a way to set expectations and test their mettle. If they get through them, give them the benefit of the doubt and let them at it!

So all you citizen developers, do you feel inspired that we were able to get around the issues, or feel somewhat shell shocked at all of the conceptual baggage, caveats and workarounds? If you are in the latter camp, then maybe serious SharePoint 2013 workflow development is not for you, but then again, if you are not blessed with a large budget to invest in 3rd party tools, you want to get SharePoint onto your CV, all the while, helping organisations escape those annoying project managers and elitist developers, at least you now know what you need to learn!

On a more serious note, if you are on a SharePoint governance, strategy or steering team (which almost by definition means you are only reading this conclusion and not the twelve articles that preceded it), then you should consider how you define value when looking at the ROI of 3rd party verses going out of the box for workflow. For me, if part of your intention or strategy is to build a deeper knowledge and capacity of SharePoint in your information workers and citizen developers, then I would look closely at out of the box because it does force people to better understand how SharePoint works more broadly. But (and its a big but), remember that the 3rd party tools are more mature offerings. While they may mitigate the need for workflow authors to learn SharePoint’s deeper plumbing, they nevertheless produce workflows that are much simpler and more understandable than what I produced using out of the box approaches. Therefore from a resource based view (ie take the least amount of time to develop and publish workflows), one would lean toward the third party tools.

I hope you enjoyed the series and thanks so much for reading

Paul Culmsee

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Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 5: From Conditions to Actionable Lessons Learnt

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Maturity
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Hi all

Welcome to part five of my quest to improve people’s awareness and understanding of what SharePoint maturity is really all about. For those new to this series of articles, we have traversed a bit of territory to get here, and during the journey there has been not a single SharePoint site column, content type or site collection in sight. In fact, I have not touched any of the topics that many would traditionally view as a sign of SharePoint maturity. Instead, I have been taking readers on a fun-filled journey examining three nerdy, yet highly interesting areas of research in team development, collaboration and organisational learning. Along the way we defaced the Mona Lisa, looked at SharePoint through holes in slices of Swiss Cheese and channelled the number of the beast.

After all that, we ended part 4, by arriving at this odd looking diagram below…

What you are looking at is something called the CALL model, which stands for “Conditions to Actionable Lessons Learnt”. I originally developed the model with Dialogue Mapping and knowledge management in mind – essentially to help my clients do a better job of integrating double loop learning into their projects. However, it soon became apparent that it was valuable in various SharePoint contexts too.

Single vs. double loop learning

In the previous paragraph I made a reference to “double loop learning” without explaining what it was, so let’s quickly make amends because it is interesting stuff. The idea of single and double loop learning has been around for close to 40 years – it was in 1974 when Chris Argyris came up with the idea. To explain, let’s bring back our trusty SharePoint 2010 governance poster that I trash-talked in the first and fourth articles…

If you have not seen this poster before, it represents what Microsoft believe to be the focus areas for SharePoint 2010 governance. Many people – consultants in particular – will take the information in this poster for granted and create SharePoint governance plans that try to cover off the various areas it suggests to be covered. Everyone will feel good because they have ticked all the boxes of this authoritative fountain of SharePoint wisdom.

Then, if SharePoint then fails to live up to expectations, many will look at the poster and wonder which areas they did not adequately cover. They will study the poster, search Google or Wikipedia for better definitions of the terms listed and then make another reattempt, trying to do an even better job of implementing the wisdom contained therein.

This my friends, is a shining example of single loop learning. Single loop learning, as described in this article “seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on techniques and making techniques more efficient.” In single loop learning, the fundamental premise of a course of action remains unchanged. All of the energy of learning is directed to making sure “we get it right this time.” In short, in a single loop learning scenario, repeated attempts are made at solving the same issue, but no-one questions the underlying premise of the strategy.

Now in case you haven’t noticed, I spent the first three posts of this series “questioning the underlying premise” of the above SharePoint governance poster. So in effect I’ve been introducing you to the notion of double loop learning already. Double-loop learning involves taking a deeper look at what is going on. In double-loop learning, having attempted to achieve a goal on different occasions, the goal itself may be modified, re-framed or rejected in the light of the experience gained in trying to achieve it. Think about it – double loop learning actually happened in organisations people would never say things like “well that’s always how we have done it here.”

I see a lot of single loop learning in SharePoint land, and I want to help people break out of their existing framing of the issue – compassionately, of course Smile

Enter the CALL Model

So getting back to my CALL model, I propose it as a multi-purpose tool that can be used for various SharePoint related stuff. It is based on the Swiss cheese risk management model; a metaphor which suggests most strategies have gaps that create risk. These gaps are analogous to holes in slices of Swiss cheese. In terms of the SharePoint governance poster, think of each of the areas it suggests to be covered as slices of cheese. This key to this model is that it assumes that no single defence layer is sufficient to mitigate risk. It also implies that if risk mitigation strategies are set up with all the holes lined up, there is a systematic flaw, since it would allow a problem to progress all the way through to adversely affect the organisation. Accordingly, the Swiss cheese model encourages a more balanced view of how risk is managed.

You can think of the CALL model as a SharePoint optimised Swiss cheese model. CALL extends the Swiss cheese model by incorporating cutting edge research in enabling team performance (Hackman), collaboration (Wilder) and knowledge management (Duffield). It outlines 8 actionable areas (Swiss cheese slices) that operate at the individual, team and organisation levels. These focus areas can be thought of as enabling conditions that mitigate risk, as well as focus areas for identification and application of lessons learnt. In other words, my contention is that for SharePoint maturity, you should strive to create these 8 conditions and then consider them when evaluating project performance.

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The image above is another drawing of the model minus the pretty colours I used earlier. In this version, I am showing the path of a SharePoint project flows through these 8 areas. Note how the arrow from left to right deviates because we are seeking to use them to mitigate risk via defence in depth. But when it comes to applying learnings from a project (arrow now moves from right to left to close the loop), the flow is designed to be smooth and unencumbered to ensure that the opportunity for double loop learning takes place.

Here is a description of each of the 8 focus areas:

Skills and expertise

This focus area is concerned with ensuring individuals are selected with the right skills and task expertise to perform their role in delivery and operation of services. In SharePoint this is critical because of the technical depth and breadth of the product. Want to deploy SharePoint 2013 request routing in dedicated mode? Go see Spence so he can tell you not to. Want to learn how the new WOPI protocol works with Office Web Apps? Sign a cheque for Wictor to help you.

Skills is closely associated with high IQ. In other words, specialist skills require smart, dedicated people. Therefore this also incorporates ensuring staff have appropriate qualifications and certifications, that education, training and ongoing development practices are properly targeted, and that individuals are willing to learn new skills and be proactive in keeping themselves up-skilled. (In other words, all of the hallmarks of those brilliantly talented people who completed the now defunct Microsoft Certified Masters program).

Collaborative Maturity

Ever heard of the term “dumb smart guy”? Usually it is someone who is intellectually smart, but has all the emotional maturity (EQ) of a potato. Collaborative maturity is all about ensuring that individuals have skills in working collaboratively with others. It signifies a willingness to listen, empathy, mutual respect, understanding and trust. Collaboratively mature people have a tolerance for ambiguity and have the ability to engage in genuine dialogue to reach compromise. Collaboratively mature people also see collaboration in their self-interest and foster develop deep ties with colleagues in order to work interdependently.

Being in the IT industry, I’m not sure if this person actually exists, but hey – this description gives us all something to aspire to!

Role clarity

Role clarity is concerned that the role of each team member is understood by everyone within the team and it is clear how much authority is vested within each role. This in turn provides task clarity, fosters interdependency among a team and reduces process loss. (Process loss is difficulty in knowing who is doing what and how it is done). Where roles are clear and understood, team members are appropriately appointed to tasks according to their capacity (see “skills and expertise” above) and character (see “collaborative maturity” above).

Goal clarity

Goal clarity relates to purpose, direction and goal alignment between members of a team is essential for good team performance. A compelling purpose energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, fully engages their talents and motivates them to resolve conflicts. A compelling purpose should be underpinned by concrete, attainable goals and objectives, both short and long term. Knowing where you are heading focuses the team’s energy in directive meaningful activity. This also helps build team efficacy, which is the belief within teams of their ability to solve problems and deliver great solutions. On the other hand, lack of goal clarify is one of the classic symptoms of wicked problems.

Participation safety and decision influence

Ever been on a project that’s taking on water, but nobody seems to be willing to listen? Ever had any critically important topics not discussed because they are simply taboo and unmentionable? It is not fun – and little breakthrough thinking or innovation can exist without participation safety and decision influence. When a team has a high level of participation safety, members feel safe to share ideas, raise unpopular views or opinions, or speak their truth to one another. This reduces groupthink and social loafing, encourages breakthrough and can lead a collaborative team and a collaborative organisational culture. There are countless case studies of major disasters (such as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill), where a culture of “only tell me the good news” prevented critical information from being raised that could have averted the issue. In fact ‘communication’ (or lack of it) is probably the most commonly cited project failure factor.

Having said all that, while participation safety is critical, the ideas that team members put forward need to influence the direction and outcome of the team. A manager who says “my door is always open”, but then ignores feedback creates dissonance among team members because what is espoused is not practiced. The simple facts of the matter is that a key element for peak performance is to provide an environment safe enough for team members to speak their truths, to be rewarded for doing so and for truth telling to actually influence direction.

Enabling Technology

Technology underpins all aspects of organisational systems and projects and provides the means to generate leaps in performance and capabilities of users, as more broadly, team and organisational productivity. Technology at its best facilitates the delivery of timely, relevant information for decision making, co-ordination and collaboration. Thus it is critical that technology does not get in the way of delivering value. How often have you worked on a project when you have been forced to use technologies that stifle productivity, create frustration and reduce collaboration between team members? How often has that technology been SharePoint?

Enabling Process

How often have you said to yourself “I can’t believe I have to follow this braindead process.” Process is the glue that provides the rules of behaviour in delivering on goals and like technology, underpins all aspects of organisational systems and projects and is a key part of performance and productivity. It is critical that process, like technology, is always driven by purpose and that it does not get in the way of delivering value. Inappropriate process can make a huge difference in how team members interact with stakeholders and each-other.

Enabling Resources

Enabling resources is concerned with the financial, material and human input necessary to develop and sustain delivery of services. Put simply, even the best teams with the most compelling direction can falter if they are under-resourced. It is critical that sufficient funds, staff, materials and time are provided to get the job done.

Applications for the CALL model

The CALL model can be used in many ways, given its heritage of Hackman, Wilder and Duffield. Examples include:

  • A model for performing SharePoint governance health check/assessment
  • A model for assessing the makeup of a SharePoint team
  • A model for assessing the complexity of a proposed SharePoint solution
  • A model for assessing departmental readiness for SharePoint
  • A model for developing SharePoint Business Continuity planning

It is worthwhile noting that Hackman developed a team performance instrument called a Team Diagnostic Survey based around his 6 enabling conditions. Since the CALL model is so closely aligned to Hackman, it should also be able to be used in a similar fashion. The same goes for the Wilder research on collaboration, that developed an instrument called the Collaboration Factors Inventory.

So given the source material, the CALL model also has applicability in the areas of:

  • An set of enabling conditions to establish to develop high performing teams
  • An set of enabling conditions to successful collaborative delivery of projects
  • A focus area for the identification of risks (and opportunities) on organisational initiatives
  • A framework for the systematic capture of project lessons learnt
  • A framework for assessing change and other organisational initiatives
  • A governance maturity model
  • A knowledge management and organisational learning maturity model

Conclusion

The CALL model reflects a synthesis of three highly rigorous research efforts. All three seemed to gel really well when they were put into the melting pot and I was pleased with the result. In the next post, I will show you how I have used the CALL model when developing a SharePoint Business Continuity Strategy for a client. I’ll also talk about how I have used it in lessons learnt workshops.

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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