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.

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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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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…

image

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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What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon

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The "message"

What does project management mean to me?

Well if you want me to give you the ‘glass half empty’ perspective, it’s easy. What project management means to me is a confused discipline where practitioners routinely do really dumb shit in its name.

Sermon over – go forth and spread the word…

Okay so that was fairly blunt, so I had better elaborate and perhaps take a more positively framed ‘glass half full’ approach to this sermon. To do that, I need to tell you about the legacy that Cleo magazine has left on society.

When I was younger, I used to skim through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Cleo while waiting in line at the checkout. Now you might think that I must really be in touch with my feminine side in admitting this, but no: the reality is that raw testosterone was the motivator. You see, Cleo would have headline articles like “10 great sex tips (in 50 words or less)” Or “The 10 things he doesn’t want in bed.” Titles like that dangled the possibility in front of me of finally understanding women, with the added bonus of developing Olympic class skills in the bedroom. Of course, each and every time the actual article never lived up to the catchy title. I rarely learnt anything new and in fact the “10 things” were usually pretty banal, self-evident and left me none the wiser.

So as our collective attention spans diminish via constant exposure to “5 steps to success with [insert buzzword here]” articles (articles designed more for search engine placement than actually informing an audience), the curse of Cleo-like catchy titles telling you stuff of little value is now so commonplace that it is hard to suss out the stuff that really makes a difference in outcomes.

So where does one go to find out the answers in project management? Should aspiring Project Managers master the dark arts of their craft by learning everything there is to learn from one or more of the bibles that contain the word “BoK” in them? On the surface it would seem so, given all of the past collective wisdom that is claimed to be codified therein – as well as shiny certification proving that one has passed the multi-choice exam on its contents.

But wait…which BoK is best? After all, we have multiple to choose from, with each making their own claims to the truth. Some BoKs even reject the key tenets of other BoKs, arguing that theirs offers a better answer. Of course, this leads to an endless stream of debate by their respective proponents as to which is really best and who is really the wisest. Not to mention that over time, new and updated BoKs emerge like phoenixes from the ashes of older BoKs. (Sometimes they are so cool that they don’t even claim to be a BoK at all).

It’s little wonder that Project Management is a confused discipline. No matter where you turn, someone is bound to tell you that you are doing it wrong.

While I am on the subject of doing it wrong, let’s poke a stick in one of the well-known project management hornets-nests: the “Waterfall vs. Scrum” argument. We all know that any self-respecting Scrum guy will not miss an opportunity to tell you about the evils of Waterfall – and for the most part they are right too, as Waterfall has a dubious history of which most people are not aware.

But that is not the reason I chose this particular topic, even though it is much loved by PMs who spend endless hours filling up the forums of various LinkedIn groups with discussion. I chose it simply because it’s fun to mess with Scrum guys – particularly the zealots. So if you have a “scrumdamentalist” in your midst, try this question on them:

Would Waterfall work if one could create an environment where all parties—as soon as they become aware of something that might affect a project materially—communicate it to all other parties involved in the project in a full, sincere and open way?

I have posed this question to many Scrum people. Most will think about it for some time, before answering a grudging “possibly” or “I don’t see why not.” Try it yourself… it’s fun pulling the rug out from under their firmly held convictions.

The best answer I have ever got to this question was from Chris Chapman – an Agile coach from Toronto. He gave me what I think is the perfect answer when he astutely observed that in the environment I described, Waterfall would actually not exist in the first place!

Therein lies the heart of my sermon. I contend that the endless debates over the efficacy of methods, tools and even BoKs are answering the wrong question! Don’t worry though, Project Management is not the first, nor the last discipline to lean their ladder against the wrong wall in this regard. To explain, let me introduce you to the work (and genius) of J Richard Hackman.

From the late sixties, Hackman spent his career researching and teaching about team performance, leadership effectiveness, and the design of self-managing teams and organizations. He died in 2013 and one of his last papers he published was called “From causes to conditions in group research.” In this swansong paper, Hackman explained how he spent years examining the factors that made teams work really well. He studied hundreds of teams (not just project teams mind you, but sporting teams, orchestras and flight crews), with the aim to distil the causes of success. Each time Hackman thought he had the causes figured out he would create a model, plug his model into a stats program, and work with real teams to see if the application of his model led to better performance.

On the surface, this approach seems like a logical thing to do. After all, if we can work out the magic levers that cause team success, then organisations would surely work better because they can start to pull those same levers. This is precisely the value proposition offered by the aforementioned BoKs as well.

When Hackman applied the models he lovingly researched and developed, he found they did not make a significant difference in outcomes. Being an academic, he did what most academics do: he spent years trying to refine his models and then re-tested them against real life teamwork situations. But this didn’t work either; his models got no closer to predicting or influencing outcomes in a reliable fashion. Reality it seemed, never fitted the models he developed.

At this point, Hackman began to question whether he was looking at the problem through the right lens. He wondered if trying to determine the causes of team efficacy by looking at successful teams retrospectively and then codifying these into causal models was the best approach. So he changed his focus and asked himself a very different question – a question that every project management practitioner (and project team member) should be asking themselves:

What are the enabling conditions that need to exist that give rise to great outcomes?

Now if, at this point, you think that this is the same question as “What are the causes of successful projects” you would be mistaken. Think about the BoKs and consider this: if you have ever argued with someone about whether a tool, methodology or some process is great or completely sucks, eventually someone will say something like “Well it can work for the right organisation.”

The implicit point here is that depending on the conditions, something that works for one organisation may completely suck for another (thereby invalidating the notion of a “best” practice). The genius of Hackman is that he challenges us to stop arguing about whether one methodology or model is better than the other and focus on what the enabling conditions are instead. Think about it – if project managers and developers did this, we would be able to avoid low value arguments like earned value management versus burndown charts.

In the case of Hackman, he re-examined all of his work on teams and boiled it down to six essential conditions, arguing that irrespective of what else you did or what methodology you used, having these conditions tended to lead to better results. Hackman did not rank any one condition over any other, instead arguing that all were needed for teams to have a greater chance of being high performing. The conditions are:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self-organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

There is more to that list than what I am covering here, and it is important to note that I’m not saying that Hackman’s conditions are *the* conditions. But I would contend that they are a pretty good start. Look at Hackman’s conditions for teams above and think about your projects and how you manage them. Did you have these conditions in place when you started? If you had them, would it have led to better outcomes?

I believe that it is a huge mistake to attribute success or failure of projects to methods, processes and models used to manage them rather than the conditions in which those processes operate. As long as this attribution error persists, people will continue to get suckered into B-grade verbal-slugfests about whether method X is better than method Y.

What exacerbates this “causes over conditions” problem is that enabling conditions rarely get codified in procedures, governance models, bodies of knowledge or certifications. As a result, the very factors that leads to success (the conditions) are entirely absent from the models that we use. My contention is that most organisations, when delivering projects, do not have the right enabling conditions in place to begin with. If your organisation has a blame culture, then chances are that any process, no matter how noble its design or intent, has the potential to become a blame apportionment mechanism or a responsibility avoidance mechanism.

So Hackman, despite looking at a different discipline of teamwork and leadership, gives us an important clue about what ails project management and how to we might improve it. Focus on enabling conditions rather than attributing causes!

Let’s get back to Chris Chapman’s answer to my Waterfall question. His assertion that Waterfall would not exist in the conditions I described holds a less obvious lesson. That is, the way project management tools or methods are used will affect conditions as well. So if you have ever said to yourself “I can’t believe that I am being forced to follow this wrong-headed process” chances are you have been on the receiving end of negative conditions created by application of a process. (So in this sense the agile dudes have it right.)

So what does project management mean to me? In short, focusing on creating the enabling conditions for great performance, and then getting out of the way!

 

Thanks for reading

Paul  Culmsee

 

Epilogue:

In this sermon I cannot hope to cover all of the things I would like to cover but never fear, Kailash Awati and I already piled some of our thoughts into 420 pages of goodness known as the book “The Heretics Guide to Best Practices” – so if you like what you read here, you will really like what is in there.

Acknowledgements:

As usual I have to thank Kailash for reviewing this post and making it suck much less than it did :-)

Further reading:

  1. My series on rethinking SharePoint maturity: Don’t let the title put you off – the material here further explores the conditions for great project performance: http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/2013/08/19/rethinking-sharepoint-maturity-part-1-conditions-over-causes/
  2. Jon Whitty’s brilliant work on memeplexes and reconceptualising project management: http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:8801/sjw_ijpm_05.pdf
  3. Pretty much anything on Kailash Awati’s blog, but in particular his sermon in this flashblog: http://eight2late.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/what-project-management-means-to-me-a-metalogue/
  4. Stephen Duffield’s work on project knowledge management and risk: http://www.invictaprojects.com.au/pmlessonslearnedblog/?p=850

p.s: This post is published as part of a first ever project management related global blogging initiative to publish a post on a common theme at exactly the same time. Over seventy bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA have committed to make a blogging contribution and the fruit of their labor is now (literally NOW) available all over the web. The complete list of all participating blogs is found here so please go and check them out!

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Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 4: The number of the beast…

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Hi all

This is part four of a series I am writing on my ideas about how the SharePoint community can revitalise how SharePoint maturity is understood and communicated. If this is your first time reading this series, then I urge you to go back and read the first three posts in the series because I covered a bit of ground to get to here. For those of you who will not do that, here is a super quick recap.

As part of doing some book research, I came across three distinct bodies of work that I think can help Microsoft and their customers better understand, foster and cultivate SharePoint maturity. To set the scene, I started this series by taking a few cheap potshots at the SharePoint 2010 governance poster that many people use as a guide to ensure they are doing SharePoint “right”. I highlighted some of the less obvious risks with it, by comparing it to a paint by numbers representation of the Mona Lisa. While people seem to understand implicitly that colouring in a Mona Lisa template will not make it a Mona Lisa (far from it), there same cannot be said for our SharePoint paint by numbers poster. The result is a skewed version how SharePoint ‘maturity’ is perceived, because this poster ignores some critical factors.

image_thumb2image_thumb5

To shine a spotlight on areas not covered by the above poster, I introduced you to the work of JR Hackman, who’s pioneering work in the area of leadership and team development contains important lessons for SharePoint teams. Hackman urges people to stop trying to look life through simplistic cause and effect lens of “If you do Z, you will get Y” and instead focus on the conditions that enable or disable success. Hackman, in his examination of leadership and the performance of teams, listed six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place (none of which make much of an appearance on the above poster):

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

I sometimes challenge agile development evangelists by saying “If Scrum was ‘the answer’ then there would be no need for Scrum coaches.” When you speak to good agile coaches, what they strive to do is create the sort of enabling conditions conducive to getting the best out of Agile – exactly what Hackman is urging us to do. Hackman’s insight is super important because It is incredibly common for people to say things like “now this will work for the right organisation…” or “this will work provided the right culture is there to support it,” but they do not elaborate further on what “right” actually is. Hackman challenges us to actually focus on the enabling conditions that underpinning a process, not the other way around.

To see if Hackman’s 6 conditions were applicable outside of his interest area of team development, I then examined the work done by the Wilder Research Group. This group published a book “Collaboration: What Makes It Work” which distilled the wisdom from 281 research studies on successful collaboration. Importantly for me, they looked at very different research than Hackman did, yet also broke it down to six quite similar focus areas:

  1. Membership characteristics: Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups
  2. Purpose: The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought
  3. Process and structure: Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context
  4. Communication: The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence
  5. Environment: Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control
  6. Resources: The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group

Finally, I examined the work of Stephen Duffield, who took the Swiss Cheese model for risk management (which is popular in safety circles) and adapted it for organisational learning for projects. This is brilliant because the Swiss cheese model assumes that any one mitigation strategy has holes in it (hence the Swiss cheese metaphor). If you consider the SharePoint governance poster above as listing particular slices of cheese, then if you still have not met with the success you were hoping for, some important slices of cheese must be missing. So what are they?

To develop his project learning model (called SYLLK), Duffield distilled the wisdom over 500 papers on the topics of project lessons learned, knowledge management and risk management. Like above two research efforts, he also distilled it down to six key areas. Duffield’s slices of cheese were:

  1. Learning: Whether individuals on the team were skilled, had the right skills for their role and whether they were kept up-skilled
  2. Culture: What participants do, what role they fulfil, how an atmosphere of trust is developed in which people are encouraged, even rewarded for truth telling– but in which they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”
  3. Social: How people relate to each-other, their interdependence and how they operate as a team
  4. Technology: Ensuring that technology and data supports outcomes and does not get in the way
  5. Process: Ensuring the appropriate protocols drive people’s behaviour and inform what they do (gate, checklists, etc.)
  6. Infrastructure: Environment (in terms of structure and facilities) that enable project outcomes

Why does all this stuff matter?

Now I am hoping this is not the case, but I would not be surprised that some readers have gotten to this point and are thinking “What the hell does all this have to do with SharePoint maturity?” (particularly if you have not read the 3 articles that preceded this one). So let’s address this one now…

Since 2009 I have taught a SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture class to BAs, PMs, CIOs, consultants, as well as developers and IT Pros. I’ve taught the class around the world and in every class I start by asking students to articulate what they feel is the hardest thing about SharePoint delivery. Take a look at the answers for yourself…

A Brisbane 2012 class said:

  • Explaining what SharePoint is
  • User uptake (“People do not like new things”)
  • Managing proliferation of SharePoint sites
  • Too much IT ownership (“Sick of IT people telling me that SP is the solution”)
  • Users don’t know what they want
  • Difficulties around SP ownership because of a lack of accountability

Not too many technical answers here it seems – in fact I am seeing connections to Hackman, Wilder and Duffield already. Looking at the seven points, they indicate we are missing some key enabling conditions like a compelling purpose, role clarity as well as the collaborative skills and attributes needed in the SharePoint team to address them (“User uptake” and “Difficulties around SP ownership because of a lack of accountability”). Perhaps we are also missing product skills (“proliferation of SharePoint sites”) and have an issue with process and structure, given the complaint of “too much IT ownership”.

Not convinced? For what it’s worth, Melbourne 2010 answered with:

  • Every project is “new” (“Traditional ASP.NET web site development is ‘same old same old’)
  • The solution is never the same as the initial design and the end client may not realise this. The implication is gaps between expectation and delivery
  • Stakeholders don’t know what they want (“First time around what they sign off on is not what they want “)
  • Projects launched as “IT projects” with no clear deliverable and no success indicators
  • Lack of visibility as to what other organisations are doing
  • Determining limits and boundaries (“Doing anything ‘practically’ in SharePoint is hard”).
  • Managing expectations around SharePoint.
    • Clients with no experience think it can do everything
    • Difficulties getting information from and translating into design, so it can be implemented
  • Legacy of bad implementations makes it hard to win the business owner
  • Lack of governance
    • Viral spread of unmanaged sites
    • No proper requirements of “why”
    • No-one managing it

… and if you want to move further afield, Singapore 2012 said:

  • Trying to deal with the sheer number of features
  • “A totally different kind of concept”
    • A little knowledge can be dangerous
    • If you start with the wrong footing, you end up messing it up
  • Trying to deal with “I need SharePoint”
  • SharePoint for an external web site was difficult to use. Unfriendly structure for a public facing website
  • Trying to get users to use it (Steep learning curve for users)
  • The need for “deep discussion” to ensure SharePoint is put in for the right reasons. Without this, the result is messy, disorganised portals
  • The gap between the business and IT results in a sub optimal deployment
  • Demonstrating value to the business (SharePoint installed, but its potential is not being realized)
  • Stakeholders not appreciating the implication of product versus platform
  • You are working across the entire business (The disconnect between management/coalface)
  • “Everything hurts with SharePoint”
  • Facilitating the discussion at the business level is hard when your background is IT

Once again, if you start to distil the underlying themes behind the above answers, you can start to see how Hackman’s conditions are not met and how we are missing some of Duffield’s slices of cheese. So at this point if you are not convinced of the relevance of Hackman, Wilder and Duffield’s research by now, then I can confidently tell you two things…

  • 1) I am not the SharePoint consultant that you need!
  • 2) I am eventually going to become the SharePoint consultant you need! (You will see the light eventually Smile)

The number of the beast…

Hopefully by now I have given you an appreciation of Hackman, Wilder and Duffield’s work and its relevance to SharePoint maturity. All of them have made highly rigorous research efforts, each asking different questions and utilising different research. Those of you who are more superstitiously minded might feel that I am meddling with the forces of darkness here, given that each of the three distilled 6 themes – 666 Surprised smile

While there is no fire and brimstone nearby as I write this text, my next job was to indeed meddle with dark forces in the sense that I had to perform my own analysis of their work to draw out the commonalities and gaps. I figured that this would go a long way to laying the groundwork for gaps I see in SharePoint maturity. I won’t bore you with too much of the detail on this effort, except to say that I used Dialogue Mapping techniques to perform the synthesis. Below are a couple of screenshots illustrating the maps I built which give you a feel for what was done (click to enlarge)…

 

In a nutshell, I mapped out each authors six constructs and then mapped their behind the scenes detail. As expected, while some terminology differed somewhat , by in large there was a lot of commonality. I linked all the commonalities together in my maps and slowly, a new picture began to emerge…

Meddling with forces…

When you think about it, my synthesis of this research is not all that different from what SharePoint people do all the time when developing an information architecture to store organisational data in a meaningful and intuitive way. Just like when you have to determine an appropriate navigation structure for your SharePoint sites, with this work I had to first think about the basis for how I wanted to structure things.

First up, I found Duffield’s use of Swiss cheese model for risk inspiring and absolutely applicable for SharePoint maturity. The metaphor of holes in each slice of SharePoint governance “cheese” is vivid and confronting. The commonality in the answers I got to the above “What is the hardest thing about SharePoint?” question speaks to the fact that there are universally common missing slices of SharePoint governance cheese. I also felt strongly that there was huge potential for a clearer relationship between Hackman’s enabling conditions and Duffield’s lessons learnt. My logic was pretty basic here: Surely organisational lessons learnt (if actually learnt), should be enabling conditions next time around? It seemed to me that Hackman “conditions” and Duffield “lessons” are looking at the same thing, just from different points in time. So my intention was to develop my own Swiss cheese model using constructs (navigation labels if you will) that could be lessons learned focus areas as well as enabling conditions. That way one could truly gauge if lessons really had been learnt, because by definition they would be the enabling conditions to strive for next time around.

The other thing I was looking to do was to make things more actionable. Saying things like “have the right people”, “the right membership characteristics” or “the right culture” are not easily actionable because what exactly is “right” anyway? To that end, I think all of the authors suffered from creating constructs that were fine for their purposes, but were a bit wishy-washy when trying to be more directive and action-focused.

One particular anomaly I noticed when comparing the research was the lack of “purpose” as a construct in Duffield’s work. Hackman and Wilder both list “purpose” as one of their six factors, but Duffield’s SYLLK model makes no mention of purpose at all. I felt this needed to be addressed because lack of purpose is one of the classic symptoms of a wicked problem – a topic I have been writing about for years now. So for me, clarity of purpose is a very big slice of Swiss cheese!

I also felt that Hackman was a bit weak on some of the process/system areas. Duffield lists “process”, “technology” and “infrastructure” as key focus areas for lessons learnt on projects and the closest Hackman comes to that is “Supportive organizational context”. This is understandable when you remember that Hackman was talking only about teamwork in general. Nevertheless for our SharePoint context, I thought that Duffield was closer to the mark. Wilder turned out to be a bit in between – as they list “Process and structure” and “Resources” as two of their six areas.

There were other various things that influenced my synthesis as well, but none of them matter for this discussion. I guess you want to see the results no?

The CALL model

The result of this work is a model I have called the CALL model (Conditions to Actionable Lessons Learnt). Since this post is getting long, I will defer a detailed description of the model for the next article. But to whet your appetite, below is an image that shows what I ended up with. It adopts Duffield’s SYLLK model as its base, but highlights 8 enabling conditions (or learning areas), split across individual, team and organisation lines. Additionally, distinction is also made between the soft (people) factors and the harder (system) factors. The arrows are there to help convey the “defence in depth” idea of the Swiss cheese model.

If you go back to the start of this article and examine Hackman, Wilder and Duffield’s work, you will see all of them represented here, except I used more action focused labels. My contention is that these eight areas are what you should be considering when judging your organisation’s SharePoint maturity. The importance of considering these as enabling conditions, to be put in place right at the start cannot be underestimated. Going back to Hackman, here is what he said about the importance of enabling conditions for team performance (emphasis mine):

Let me go out on a limb and make rough estimates of the size of these effects. I propose that 60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting prework the leader does. Thirty per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game

I note that Hackman’s view doesn’t just stand in stark contrast to “popular images of group leadership” – it also stands in stark contrast to Microsoft’s SharePoint governance poster too!

Conclusion

Now I am sure that some of you are still trying to decipher the model above, or feel the urge to tell me that something is missing or that the labels for each of my slices of SharePoint maturity cheese don’t do it for you. In the next post I will spend more time going over the model and what each slice really means. Given the heritage of the source material that inspired it, I feel that it can be used in various SharePoint and non-SharePoint scenarios. So I will also spend some time talking about that.

Finally, I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but I didn’t actually develop this model just for SharePoint! In fact I have already used this model in various non-SharePoint ways too. We will also take a look at this…

thanks for reading

 

 

Paul Culmsee

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 3: Who moved my cheese?

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Hi all

Welcome to part 3 in this series about rethinking what SharePoint “maturity” looks like. In the first post, I introduced the work of JR Hackman and his notion of trying to create enabling conditions, rather than attribute cause and effect. Hackman, in his examination of leadership and the performance of teams, listed six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place. Those conditions were:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

I then got interested in how applicable these conditions were to SharePoint projects. The first question I asked myself was “I wonder if Hackman’s conditions apply to collaboration itself, as opposed to teams.” To find out, I utilised some really interesting work done by the Wilder Research Group, that produced a book called “Collaboration: What Makes It Work.” This book distilled the wisdom from 281 research studies on collaborative case studies and their success or failure. They distilled things down to six focus areas (they ended up with the same number as Hackman). Their six were:

  1. Membership characteristics: (Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups)
  2. Purpose: (The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought)
  3. Process and structure: (Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context)
  4. Communication: (The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence)
  5. Environment: (Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control)
  6. Resources: (The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group)

If you want the fuller detail of Hackman and Wilder, check the first and second posts respectively. But it should be clear from even a cursory look at the above lists, that there is a lot of overlap and common themes between these two research efforts and we can learn from them in our SharePoint work. I strongly believe that this sort of material constitutes a critical gap in a lot of the material out there on what it takes to have a successful SharePoint deployment and offers some excellent ideas in further developing ideas around SharePoint maturity. I started to develop a fairly comprehensive Dialogue Map of both of these research efforts so I could synthesise them to create my own set of “conditions” in the way Hackman describes. While I was doing this, I met a fellow via LinkedIn who opened my mind to further possibilities. Everybody, meet Stephen Duffield

Duffield’s SYLLK model for lessons learnt

I met Steve because we both shared a common interest in organisational knowledge management. In, fact Steve is working on his PhD in this area, focussing on addressing the pitiful record of organisations utilising lesson learnt practices on projects and then embedding them into organisational  culture and practices. If you have ever filled out a lessons learnt form, knowing full-well that it will disappear into a filing cabinet never to be seen again, Steve shares your frustration. For his PhD, he is tackling two research questions:

  1. What are the significant factors that negatively influence the capture, dissemination and application of lessons learned from completed projects within project-based organisations?
  2. Can a systemic knowledge model positively influence the capture, dissemination and application of project management lessons learned between project teams within the organisation?

Now if you think it was impressive that Wilder researched 281 studies on collaboration, Steve topped them by miles. His PhD literature review covered over 500+ papers on the topics of project lessons learned, knowledge management, risk management and the like. 500! Man, that’s crazy – all I can say to that is I am sure as hell glad he did it and I didn’t have to!

So what was the result of Duffield’s work? In a nutshell, he has developed a model called “Systemic Lessons Learned Knowledge” (SYLLK), which was influenced by the Swiss Cheese model for risk management, originally proposed by Dante Orlandella and James T. Reason.

Why SYLLK is important for SharePoint

imageBefore I explain Duffield’s SYLLK model, it is important I briefly explain the Swiss Cheese model for risk management that inspired him. The Swiss Cheese Model (see the image to the left) for risk management is commonly used in aviation and healthcare safety. It is based on the notion that systems have potential for failure in many areas and these are analogous to a stack of slices of Swiss cheese, where the holes in each slice are opportunities for a process to fail. Each of the slices are “defensive layers” and while an error may allow a problem to pass through a hole in one layer, in the next layer the holes are in different places, allowing the problem to be caught before its impact becomes severe.

The key to the Swiss Cheese Model is that it assumes that no single defence layer is sufficient to mitigate risk. It also implies that if risk mitigation strategies exist, yet all of the holes are lined up, this is an inherently flawed system. Why? because it would allow a problem to progress through all controls and adversely affect the organisation. Therefore, its use encourages a more balanced view of how risks are identified and managed.

So think about that for a second… SharePoint projects to this day remain difficult to get right. If you are on your third attempt at SharePoint, then by definition you’ve had previous failed SharePoint projects. The inference when applying the Swiss cheese model is that your delivery approach is inherently flawed and you have not sufficiently learnt from it. In other words, you were – and maybe still are – missing some important slices of cheese from your arsenal. From a SharePoint maturity perspective, we need to know what those missing slices are if we wish to raise the bar.

So the challenge I have for you is this: If you have had a failed or semi-failed SharePoint project or two under your belt, did you or others on your team ever say to yourself “We’ll get it right this time” and then find that the results never met expectations? If you did, then Duffield’s (and my) contention is you might have failed to truly understand the factors that caused the failure.

Back to Duffield…

This is where Duffield’s work gets super interesting. He realised that the original Swiss cheese “slices” that resolved around safety were inappropriate for a typical organisation managing their projects. Like the Wilder work on collaboration, Steve reviewed tons of literature and synthesised from it, what he thinks are the key slices of cheese that are required to enable not only mitigation of project risks, but also focus people on the critical areas that need to be examined to capture the full gamut of lessons learnt on projects.

So how many slices of cheese do you think Steve came up with? If you read the previous two posts then you can already guess at the answer. Six!

There really seems to be something special about the number 6! We have Hackman coming up with 6 conditions for high performing teams, Wilder’s 6 factors that make a difference in successful collaboration and Duffield’s 6 areas that are critical to organisational learning from projects! For the record, here are Duffield’s six areas (the first three are labelled as people factors and the second three are system factors):

  1. Learning: Whether individuals on the team are skilled, have the right skills for their role and whether they are kept up-skilled
  2. Culture: What participants do, what role they fulfil, how an atmosphere of trust is developed in which people are encouraged, even rewarded for truth telling– but in which they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”
  3. Social: How people relate to each-other, their interdependence and how they operate as a team
  4. Technology: Ensuring that technology and data supports outcomes and does not get in the way
  5. Process: Ensuring the appropriate protocols drive people’s behaviour and inform what they do (gate, checklists, etc.)
  6. Infrastructure: Environment (in terms of structure and facilities) that enable project outcomes

Duffield has a diagram that illustrates the SYLLK model, showing how his six identified organisational elements of learning, culture, social, technology, process and infrastructure align as Swiss cheese slices. I have pasted it (with permission), below (click to enlarge).

Duffield states that the SYLLK model represents “the various organisational systems that collectively form the overall behaviour of the organisation. The various modes of social and cultural learning, along with the organisational processes, infrastructure and technology that support them.” Notice in the above diagram how the holes in each slice are not lined up when the project arrow moves right to left. This makes sense because the whole point of the model is the idea of “defence in depth.” But then the holes are aligned when moving from left to right. This is because each slice of cheese need to be aligned to enable the feedback loop – the effective dissemination and application of the identified lessons.

Conclusion

The notion of the Swiss cheese model for mitigating risk makes a heck of a lot of sense for SharePoint projects, given that

  • a) there is a myriad of technical and non technical factors that have to be aligned for sustained SharePoint success, and
  • b) SharePoint success remains persistently illusive for many organisations.

What Duffield has done with the SYLLK model is to take the Swiss Cheese model out of the cloistered confines of safety management and into organisational learning through projects. This is huge in my opinion, and creates a platform for lots of innovative approaches around the capture and use of organisational learning, all the while framing it around the key project management task of identifying and mitigating risk. From a SharePoint maturity perspective, it gives us a very powerful approach to see various aspects of SharePoint project delivery in a whole new light, giving focus to aspects that are often not given due consideration.

Like the Wilder model, I love the fact that Duffield has done such a systematic and rigorous review of literature and I also love the fact that his area of research is quite distinct from Hackman (conditions that enable team efficacy) and the Wilder team (factors influencing successful collaboration). When you think about it, each of the three research efforts focuses on distinct areas of the life-cycle of a project. Hackman looks at the enabling conditions required before you commence a project and what needs to be maintained. Wilder appears to focus more on what is happening during a project, by examining what successful collaboration looks like. Duffield then looks at the result of a project in terms of the lessons learnt and how this can shape future projects (which brings us back to Hackman’s enabling conditions).

While all that is interesting and valuable, the honest truth is that I liked the fact that all three of these efforts all ended up with six “things”. It seemed preordained for me to “munge” them together to see what they collectively tell us about SharePoint maturity.

… and that’s precisely what I did. In the next post we will examine the results.

 

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 2: What Makes Collaboration Work

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Hi all

Welcome to part 2 about my research efforts that has led me to thinking a little differently in how we understand and measure SharePoint and organisational “maturity”. In the first post, I gave a glimpse into the work of JR Hackman, who had presented some really interesting ideas about what leads to outstanding team performance. In case you have not read the first post (damn you!), Hackman presented the notion that trying in vain to come up with the causes of team efficacy was a rather dumb idea and instead, looking at the conditions that enable great teams was a much more productive approach.

This notion of conditions over causes is really important to understand, because we all routinely get suckered into conversations about whether one process, approach or model is objectively “better” than another. This sort of discussion frustrates me and I usually find it all rather pointless because it all but ignores the underlying conditions that enabled or disabled things. As a result, we misattribute success or failure of SharePoint to how we used methods, processes and models, rather than focus on what really matters – the conditions under which those methods, processes and models operated.

Now Hackman was not looking at SharePoint projects when he came to this realisation. He was looking at leadership and the performance of teams in general. He synthesised his years of research work down to six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place. Those conditions are:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

So I very much bought into Hackman’s conditions over causes argument, but wasn’t sure whether his six conditions were directly applicable to SharePoint projects. To find out, I got lucky, coming across some really great work on the subject of collaboration by the Wilder Research Group.

Collaboration: What Makes it Work

Earlier this year, I  bought a crapload of books on the topic of collaboration. One of them had the rather long title of “Collaboration: What Makes It Work, 2nd Edition: A Review Of Research Literature On Factors Influencing Successful Collaboration” written by Paul W. Mattessich, Marta Murray-Close, Barbara R. Morrisey and published by the Wilder Research Group.

This book is quite short – just over 100 pages, but it packs a heavy punch nevertheless. The core question asked in this book was “What makes the difference between your collaboration’s failure or success?” and it sought to answer the question by providing an in-depth review of lots (and lots and lots) of academic research on collaboration. In all, the authors examined more than 281 research studies on collaborative initiatives (and their success or failure) and synthesised them. I love these sort of meta-analysis studies, because I am lazy and its terrific when someone else has done the rigorous hard work!

Why Wilder matters for SharePoint

The intent of the report is to help readers expand their thinking about ways to help projects succeed, gain background information before beginning a collaboration, compare their situation with others, determine collaboration strategy including necessary ingredients, uncover and resolve trouble spots. It also provides a tool called the “The Collaboration Factors Inventory which allows you to self-assess how your collaboration is doing against the success factors they came up with. Examples are also provided of how organizations have used the inventory as well as a case study illustrating how one collaboration assessed itself and how it  used the results to take action to improve its success.

Thus, it should be fairly obvious why this particular work should be of interest to SharePoint practitioners. After all, improving collaboration in organisations and teams is one of the core value propositions that underpins SharePoint and has done so for years now. Under the guise of “governance”, we do lots of work and produce processes (and usually lots of documentation) in the hope that we have put in the necessary plumbing for collaboration to take root and blossom. So when someone has taken the time to distil the learnings from 281 research efforts into collaborative success, there is bound to be valuable takeaways to be had for us SharePoint peeps – especially if our organisations have bought heavily into “social” features of the product.

Now while that all sounds good, there is another less obvious, but cooler reason to be interested in this book – especially given my examination of Hackman in part 1. The Wilder team found a total of 20 factors that were identified as “ingredients” for successful collaboration and guess how many categories they distilled them down to?

Six! – precisely the same number of conditions that Hackman distilled for great team performance. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much overlap there is between what Hackman says are the six conditions for great teams versus Wilder’s six “differences” between collaboration failure and success?

I thought so too…

Back to the Wilder team…

So what are the factors that make a difference in successful collaboration identified by Wilder? Below are their twenty ingredients, divided into the aforementioned six categories…

  • 1. Membership characteristics: (Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups)
    • – Mutual respect, understanding and trust: Members of the collaborative group share an understanding and respect for each other and their respective organizations: how they operate, their cultural norms and values, limitations, and expectations.
    • – Appropriate cross section of members: To the extent that they are needed, the collaborative group includes representatives from each segment of the community who will be affected by its activities.
    • – Members see collaboration as in their self interest: Collaborating partners believe that they will benefit from their involvement in the collaboration and that the advantages of membership will offset costs such as loss of autonomy and turf.
    • – Ability to compromise: Collaborating partners are able to compromise, since the many decisions within a collaborative effort cannot possibly fit the preferences of every member perfectly.
  • 2. Purpose: (The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought)
    • – Concrete, attainable goals and objectives: Goals and objectives of the collaborative group are clear to all partners, and can realistically be attained.
    • – Shared vision: Collaborating partners have the same vision, with clearly agreed-upon mission, objectives, and strategy. The shared vision may exist at the outset of collaboration, or the partners may develop a vision as they work together.
    • – Unique purpose: The mission and goals or approach of the collaborative group differ, at least in part, from the mission and goals or approach of the member organizations.
  • 3. Process and structure: (Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context)
    • – Members that share a stake in both process and outcome: Members of a collaborative group feel “ownership” of both the way the group works and the results or product of its work.
    • – Multiple layers of participation: Every level (upper management, middle management, operations) within each partner organisation has at least some representation and ongoing involvement in the collaborative initiative
    • – Flexibility: The collaborative group remains open to varied ways of organising itself and accomplishing its work
    • – Development of clear roles and policy guidelines: The collaborating partners clearly understand their roles, rights, and responsibilities, and they understand how to carry out those responsibilities.
    • – Adaptability: The collaborative group has the ability to sustain itself in the midst of major changes, even if it needs to change some major goals, members, etc., in order to deal with changing conditions.
    • – Appropriate pace of development: The structure, resources, and activities of the collaborative group change over time to meet the needs of the group without overwhelming its capacity, at each point throughout the initiative.
  • 4. Communication: (The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence)
    • – Open and frequent communication: Collaborative group members interact often, update one another, discuss issues openly, and convey all necessary information to one another and to people outside the group.
    • – Established informal relationships and communication links: In addition to formal channels of communication, members establish personal connections — producing a better, more informed, and cohesive group working on a common project.
  • 5. Environment: (Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control)
    • – History of collaboration or cooperation in the community: A history of collaboration or cooperation exists in the community and offers the potential collaborative partners an understanding of the roles and expectations required in collaboration and enables them to trust the process
    • – Collaborative group seen as a legitimate leader in the community: The collaborative group (and by implication, the agencies in the group) is perceived within the community as reliable and competent—at least related to the goals and activities it intends to accomplish.
    • – Favourable political and social climate: Political leaders, opinion-makers, persons who control resources, and the general public support (or at least do not oppose) the mission of the collaborative group
  • 6. Resources: (The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group)
    • – Sufficient funds, staff, materials and time: The collaborative group has an adequate, consistent financial base, along with the staff and materials needed to support its operations. It allows sufficient time to achieve its goals and includes time to nurture the collaboration.
    • – Skilled leadership: The individual who provides leadership for the collaborative group has organizing and interpersonal skills, and carries out the role with fairness. Because of these characteristics (and others), the leader is granted respect or “legitimacy” by the collaborative partners.

Now that you have seen Wilders six factors that influence successful collaboration, think about where you focus on your SharePoint projects in the name or guide of “governance”. How many of these factors did you consider when you started on your quest to use SharePoint for improved collaboration? Which of these really scream out at you as something worth pursuing? Go back in time and with hindsight, imagine if you had considered these and acted on it… Would it had led to better outcomes?

Conclusion

I have previously stated that collaboration is a classic SharePoint platitude, and chasing goals like “improved collaboration” are a sure fire way to create elaborate SharePoint solutions that miss the mark. Thus, this work by Wilder is a crucial resource in helping organisations determine what collaboration means to them. Furthermore, anyone interested in assessing SharePoint “readiness” (whatever your interpretation of readiness), would be well served to think about how they can incorporate the Wilder work into their readiness or maturity models. After all, how many other meta analyses of 281 studies on the topic have been done, eh?

Consider also that the Wilder team asked themselves a different question than Hackman. While Hackman framed his question around “What are the enabling conditions?” the Wilder team asked “What makes the difference?” This more broader question posed by the Wilder team explains a lot about their results. Some of their collaboration success factors can be seen as potential enabling conditions as Hackman described, whereas others are a more retrospective look on what successful collaboration looks like during and after collaboration has taken place. Consider also Hackman and the Wilder team used very different areas of research to come up with their answers. Wilder examined 281 case studies on successful collaboration, whereas Hackman used decades of research in teamwork and leadership. While research on collaboration might seem related to teamwork and leadership, in the world of academic research, you are talking about completely different bodies of knowledge.

Nevertheless, if you compare Hackman’s six conditions to Wilder’s six collaboration factors, there are more overlaps than there are differences. This I find exciting because it tells me that these independent research efforts are coalescing around the same themes. But I am going to defer a detailed examination of them both in context till a future post, because as I started to synthesise Hackman and Wilder together, I came across a third area of research that also led to some important insights – perhaps the most important ones of all… the work of PhD candidate Stephen Duffield in the area of risk and organisational learning on projects.

That my friends, is the topic of the next post…

 

 

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 1: Conditions Over Causes

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Hi all

I have been hitting the books lately, doing various bits of research, all related to plans for a new book.  While most of that research would not be of too much interest to readers, some of it turned out to be quite profound and has significant implications for anybody interested in SharePoint governance/maturity/readiness, as well as risk management, organisational learning, knowledge management and team development. So if you are spending your days delving deep into the bowels of the SharePoint 2013 apps model, oAuth and Azure Service Busses, then maybe this article is not for you. However if you manage or are responsible for people or projects that delve deep into the bowels of the SharePoint in areas like the apps model, oAuth and Azure Service Busses, then I strongly suggest you read on. Continue reading

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Powerful questions part 3: The “I told you so” question

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Hi all

I just recorded the third video on the topic of powerful questions. The purpose of this series of videos is to help facilitators, project managers, business analysts and SharePoint peeps ask better questions of their stakeholders. The first video introduced the platitude buster question and the second video unveiled the key focus area question. Both are hugely important – especially for SharePoint projects and any SharePoint governance efforts because failure to answer these two will positively kill your project. This 3rd powerful question is related to risk perception and how you can frame questions to get a much better sense of what the real risks are in projects or problems. In this video, I made the contention that asking “What are the risks” is not a great way to identify and subsequently manage risks. The inference for SharePoint people here is that if you think you have done your job by creating a risks and issues list (ala Project Server) and asking for people to fill it in, I am here to tell you that there is much more to the story…

Don’t believe me? Then watch the video. 

Like the previous post, I suggest you watch this video in full screen. Enjoy!

How to find out what the real risks are…
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Making Sense of SharePoint and Digital Records Management…

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Hi all

One of the conversation areas in SharePoint life that is inevitably complex is that of records management since there are just as many differing opinions on records management as there are legal jurisdictions and different standards to choose from. Accordingly, a lot of confusion abounds as we move into a world dominated by cloud computing, inter-agency collaboration, changes in attitudes to information assets via the open data/government 2.0 movements, and of course, the increasing usage of enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint. As a result, I feel for record managers because generally they are an unloved lot and it is not really their fault. They have to meet legal compliance requirements governed by various acts of legislation, but their job is made all the harder by the paradox that the more one tries to enforce compliance, the less likely one is to be compliant. This is because more compliance generally equates to more effort on the part of users for little perceived benefit. This results in direct avoidance of using record management systems or the plain misuse of those systems (both which in turn results in a lack of compliance).

As it happens, my company works with many government agencies primarily in the state of Western Australia, both at a state agency and local government level. We have seen most enterprise document management systems out there such as HP Trim, Objective, Hummingbird/OpenText and have to field questions on how SharePoint should integrate and interact with them (little known fact – I started my career with Hummingbird in 1998 when it was called PCDOCS Open and before SharePoint existed).

Now while I am sympathetic to the plight of your average records management professional, I have also seen the other side of the coin, where records management is used to create fear, uncertainty and doubt. “You can’t do that, because of the records act” is a refrain that is oft-levelled at initiatives like SharePoint or cloud based solutions to try and shut them down or curtail their scope. What makes it hard to argue against such statements is that few ever read such acts (including those who make these sort of statements). So being a sucker for punishment, I decided to read the Western Australian State Records Act 2000 and the associated standard on digital recordkeeping, published by the State Records Office. My goal was to understand the intent of these standards and the minimum compliance requirements they mandate, so I could better help clients integrate potentially disruptive tools into their compliance strategies.

I did this by starting out with the core standard in Western Australia – SRC Standard 8: Digital Recordkeeping. I created an IBIS Issue Map of this standard using Compendium software. What I soon discovered was that Standard 8 refers to other standards, such as Standard 2: Recordkeeping Plans and Standard 3: Appraisal of Records. That meant that I had to add these to the map, as well as any other documents they referred to. In the end, I followed every standard, policy or guideline in a recursive fashion, until I was back at the digital recordkeeping standard where I started. This took a while, but I eventually got there. You can click the image below to examine the standards in all of their detail and watch the video to see more about how I created it.

Map   

Now I need to make it clear that my map is not endorsed by the State Records Office, so it is provided as-is with a disclaimer that it is not intended to drive policy or be used as anything more than an example of the mapping approaches I use. I felt that by putting the standards into a IBIS based issue map, I feel I was able to reduce some of the complexity of understanding them, because now one can visually see how the standards relate to each other. Additionally, by taking advantage of Compendiums ability to have the same node in multiple maps, it allowed me to create a single ‘meta map’ that pulled in all of the compliance requirements into a single integrated place. One can look at the compliance requirements of all the standards in one place and ask themselves “Am I meeting the intent of these standards?”

Reflections…

In terms of my conclusions undertaking this work, there are a few. For a start, everything is a record, so people should just get over the whole debate of “is it or isn’t it”. In short, if you work for a government agency and are doing actual work, then your work outputs are records. The issue is not what is and is not a record, but how you control and manage them. Secondly, the notion that there has to be “one RMS system to rule them all” to ensure compliance is plain rubbish and does not stand up to any form of serious scrutiny. While it is highly desirable to have a single management point for digital recordkeeping, it is often not practical and insistence in doing this often makes agencies less compliant because of the aforementioned difficulties of use, resulting in passive resistance and outright subversion of such systems. It additionally causes all sorts of unnecessary stress in the areas of new initiatives or inter-agency collaboration efforts. In fact, to meet the intent of the standards I mapped, one by definition, has to take a portfolio approach to the management of records as data will reside in multiple repositories. It was Andrew Jolly who first suggested the portfolio idea to me and provided this excellent example: There is nothing stopping records management departments designating MS Exchange 2013 Site mailboxes as part of the records management portfolio and at the same time having a much better integrated email and document management story for users.

For me, the real crux of the digital records management challenge is hidden away in SRC Standard 8, Principle 5 (preservation). One of the statements of compliance in relation to preservation is that “digital records and their metadata remain accessible and usable for as long as they are required in accordance with an approved disposal authority.”  In my opinion, the key challenge for agencies and consultancies alike is being able to meet the requirements of Disposal Authorities (DA’s) without over burdening users. DA’s are the legal documents published by the State Records Commission that specify how data is handled in terms of whether it is archived or deleted and when this should happen. They are also quite prescriptive (some are mandated), and their classification of content from a retention and disposal point of view poses many challenges, both technically and organisationally. While for the sake of size, this article is not going to get into this topic in detail, I would advise any SharePoint practitioner to understand the relevant disposal authorities that their organisation has to adhere to. You will come away with a new respect for the challenges that record managers face, an understanding on why they use the classification schemes that they do, why records management systems are not popular among users of the systems and why the paradox around “chasing compliance only to become non-compliant” happens.

Maybe you might come away with some insights on how to better integrate SharePoint into the story? Then you can tell the rest of us Smile

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

paul.culmssee@sevensigma.com.au

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