Going Digital

Are you ready to go all digital?  Is your workplace ready?  Over the past several years, various organizations have taken the plunge to go all digital.  The publishing industry has probably been the most successful.  I don’t think I bought more than 1 or 2 paper books in the last year or so but I have bought at least two dozen electronic books and I carry them around with me all of the time.  I also use the electronic version of best sellers from our local library which I can check out on-line rather than having to physically go down to the library.  What a fantastic resource.

Newspapers and magazines are starting to go the same way.  At first they offered both printed and digital versions of their publications, but now some of them are cutting out the printed versions.  For example, the June 24th issue of Information Week, a free magazine that many of us in the IT industry have subscribed to for years, was the last paper version of the magazine.  In fact, for the last year I have only subscribed to the electronic version of SQL Server Magazine because it is much more convenient to carry around not only the most current issue, but the complete last year of issues on a tablet.  Furthermore, there are interactive features available in the digital versions that do not and can not exist on the paper magazines.  Stories can be linked to similar stories, to further information, and to vendors of products described in the article.  Advertisements can be interactive with links to videos to demo the product.  You can even email the editors and authors sometimes directly from the digital pages of the magazine.

Many of the national newspapers have digital subscriptions available today.  Even our local newspaper started offering digital subscriptions.  For those people who like to clip coupons to save money at the store, I’m starting to see more of the coupons go digital as well so that you only have to display the barcodes on your smartphone to get money back from restaurants, department stores, and other places.

I use to do all of my writing first on paper and then type in what I created for editing and formatting.  There was always something about the feel of a smooth flowing pen on paper as you write that created a sense of enjoyment.  Ok, maybe that is a little weird for some of you, but anyone who is a writer and began their love of writing more than 10 years ago knows exactly what I mean.  However, now I’ve switch to writing all of my blogs, documentation, newsletters, etc. directly in a word processor.  It is not always Microsoft Word either.  Any word processor will do because the basic functions are the same.  I learned how to type in high school and I find that I can type much faster than I can write the same text out freehand.  Thus I save time not having to first write it down and then type it up.  I still haven’t gotten use to writing on a tablet and I much prefer a standard keyboard, but hey, who knows.  After all, I learned how to use a mouse with my left hand so that I could write with my right hand without having to keep switching what I was holding.  (Yes, I occasionally would try to navigate around the screen with my pen and write with my mouse so it was the best solution I could come up with.)

I guess the only problem I have with writing electronically is the ‘darn’ spell correction in most word processors these days.  Sometimes when I misspell a word, the program tries to correct it with what it thinks I was going to say, but while it gets a correctly spelled word, it is often the wrong word.  Therefore, I sometimes send out text with what looks like stupid mistakes.  Yes, I know you are suppose to proof read your document before sending it out, but sometimes I even miss the most obvious wrong words and then have my friends question how smart I really am.

Anyway, my point is that soon you will be able to forget about recycling paper, because paper as we know it today will become ancient history like impressing characters into a wet clay tablet.  I can hear the trees celebrating.  But equally important will be the fact that we no long have to store paper.  Physical paper takes a lot of space and it weighs quite a bit.  (Pick up two copies of War and Peace and use it for your arm exercises.  It may be cheaper than a set of barbells.)  You can easily build a large library at home with practically no required space.  You can also carry that library with you and read on the commuter train to work or while waiting in line somewhere or even during that dull staff meeting that you have to go to every week.

Yes, sometimes there is just something comforting about holding a real book with real pages.  But with the improvements in Kindles, Nooks, iPads and even most smart phones, I find that I miss real books less and less.

I’ve always been a Star Trek fan and many of the things used in Star Trek have become possible over the last several decades since the original series.  Ok, we don’t have transporters or warp drives yet (although wouldn’t that be fun), but the flip phone style communicators exist as do the pads that were used and are now called tablets or even the iPad.  Some of the medical devices for imaging a person’s body to diagnose disease exist or are on the horizon.  However, never once in all of the episodes did I see Kirk, Picard, or Janeway need to fall back on sheets of paper for information.  If you haven’t tried it, try going a week without using paper, or at least a day.  At the very least cut back on your paper usage and rely on digital versions of the information.  It is not as hard as you may think.

C’ya next time.

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Marketing: Science, Art, or Voodoo?

I was digging through some boxes that were still closed up from when we moved to Florida almost 19 years ago.  I was hoping to find some things to pass on to others, donate, or throw away.  Instead, I ran across some old notes from a marketing class I took when I was going for my MBA.

This was back in the days before getting an MBA with your engineering degree was cool.  I was one of only a handful of engineering graduates going for an MBA amongst a swarm of business majors. When we found out that the marketing class would involve a computer simulation of a competitive market, we quickly signed up for the class just to play with the computer simulation.

On the first day of class the instructor split the class into 6 groups of 4 people each.  Each group would represent a company and each company would produce 4 products.  Of course, each company produced the same 4 products.  We would budget our money (play money) by quarter into major areas such as product research, manufacturing, cost of goods sold (reflecting the quality of the materials), salaries and benefits of workers and administration, marketing/advertising, and after sale customer support.  We could budget the money by product as well.  That means we could spend more on research for one product while spending less on another product.  The details of the data we had to supply each week goes beyond the point of this blog.  As a general example through, we could allocate different amounts of the marketing/advertising budget to different media types.  We were also supplied with ‘historical’ statistics on how effective different marketing methods were for different demographic groups and which groups tended to buy which types of products.

Each week at the start of class we would submit our ‘budget plan’ for the next quarter on how we were going to spend our company’s money.  During class (a 3 hour evening class) a student assistant for the professor would take the data from each group, go over to the data center, enter the data onto punch cards (yes, it was a long time ago) and run the program.  After the program ran, he would bring back the printed reports to show how each company did.  It would specify how much of each product each of the six companies sold, your company’s costs, and your company’s profit or loss.

Before I go on, I need to mention that each ‘company’ had to create 3 objectives or goals at the start of the semester for their company.  A goal could be to become the top seller of Product A, or to become the seller with the best total profit returned on Product B, or perhaps even to be the company with the best overall profit margin or the greatest cash reserves.  One group composed entirely of business majors had the goal to the top seller of each of the four products.  An aggressive goal to be sure, but potentially possible.

As each week passed (representing another quarter year of the simulation), most groups made progress toward achieving at least one or two of their goals.  The team that had the goal of being the top seller of all four products however was not doing well.  In fact, they seemed to be consistently in the lower half of the results each period.  We all assumed that with five other teams competing to be the best in only one or two products, that this team was just spreading their resources too thin to be successful with all four products.

Finally, the last day of the class simulation arrived.  We all worked hard to try to meet at least two of our stated goals by coming up with the best allocation of our company resources.  After all, how well we did in the simulation to reach our goals would determine a major portion of our grade.

All during class we hardly listened to the professor drone on about how he did this study or how he devised that successful marketing plan.  So when the student assistant arrived back from the computer center with the final set of results, we could hardly wait to see how well we did.  As we were looking over our results and wondering how we had lost market lead in Product A, we heard from across the room four shouts of joy coming from the business team with the improbable goal of being the market leader in all four products.  Sure enough, looking at the total sales by company showed that they had succeeded in getting the highest market share in each of the product lines.  But class was over for the night and we would have to wait until the next week to find out how they did it.

The following week we had to present a report to the entire class on how we did and what strategies we used.  One by one, each of the other groups presented their results and tried to explain why no one achieved market leadership in any of the products even after showing so much promise earlier in the simulation quarters.  When the last team got up to make their presentation, we soon learned how they had done achieved market leadership in each of the products.  Did they win by science (skill) or art (luck)?

Unfortunately, after hearing what they did, we all felt cheated.  They succeeded in pushing ahead of everyone one else by having a ‘fire’ sale or a ‘going-out-of-business’ sale.  They cut quality, eliminated market research, slashed salaries, fired half their staff, lowered their prices to break even with costs and threw all of the company’s cash into marketing and advertising.  As a result, the program simulated the typically consumer response when looking for a bargain and granted them a huge market share for each product.

Of course, they had no company left at the end.  They had no inventory left, no cash to speak of, and product quality, never better than average, fell to dead last.  So what did our professor of marketing do?  Did he criticize them for bankrupting the company and putting hundreds of virtual employees out of virtual work?  No.  Rather he praised their brilliance in manipulating the simulation factors that allowed them to reach their goals and gave them A’s for the class.  Even the other business majors in our class praised this team for their success even through it was at the expense of their own success (and grade).  The rest of us engineers with B’s and C’s were immediately convinced that it was all voodoo.

In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of executives act the same way in the real world.  Between the crisis in the savings and loan and investment industries, I sometimes wonder where ethics and morality have gone.  Everyone seems to be thinking about the bottom line for the current quarter only so they can use their current success to get their next big job before their last company falls apart and takes them down with it.  No one seems to care about the decimated companies and lives left behind.

I’m not saying that watching the bottom line for the current period is not important.  It is, but not at the exclusion of the long term health of the company and its employees.  Somewhere many business people have lost that perspective.  Yet even today, there are companies that are succeeding while still acting responsibly and serving not just their companies with great products and services, but also providing a great environment for employees.  They nurture a level of loyalty toward their employee’s long term well being and growth.  At the same time, they receive without asking, their employee’s loyalty to do everything they can to make the company great.

Who are these companies?  A few years ago, Jim Collins wrote a book called, ‘Good to Great’ which highlighted a few of them.  In fact, Jim Collins has authored or co-authored several books that attempt to explore why some companies achieve success while others just manage to survive or perhaps don’t.  Jim takes that high road.

If you work for one of the great companies and want to add a note here about your organization and perhaps what makes it great, please do.  On the other hand, if you just want to rant about your company, don’t bother.  I won’t publish your comment.

Are Your SharePoint Libraries File Dumps?

When we first started to use SharePoint five years ago, our focus was to replace our external Internet facing sites with a more consistent look and feel experience for end-users.  We did not have a lot of collaboration sites, but we did support a few, particular among the groups within IT.  We definitely did not spend a lot of time providing training on how you should use SharePoint libraries.  Looking back, that was probably because we did not have a real good idea what worked and what should be avoided.  Therefore, since most of the collaboration site users were IT veterans, they designed their own libraries focused around a paradigm they knew well, a hierarchy of folders within folders within folders…

It took a few months, but we soon started to hear about problems such as:

  • I know I saved my file, but I just don’t remember where.  Can you help me find it?
  • We just discovered that there are two copies of the monthly status report stored in different folders in our site.  Each one has updates that are unique.  Can you help us merge the documents back into a single document.
  • I saved our documents in our project folder, but now when I attempt to access the file with its URL, the browser refused to find it.  What is wrong?

Many of these problems were the direct result of the users having created a complex folder hierarchy that not everyone was familiar with.  We also found several cases where someone saved a document in a different folder specifically because they could not save the file back to the original library.  Perhaps they could not find the original directory again or maybe someone else had the file locked.  Okay, the situation here was that they turned off automatic checkout for the library because checking files out to edit them and then checking them back in was ‘just too much trouble’.

SharePoint 2007 with Microsoft Office 2007 did provide a ‘default’ lock to the file.  However, that default lock released after about 20 minutes or so depending on the client’s OS.  Therefore, conflicts could easily occur.  One of the advantages of moving to SharePoint 2010 and Microsoft Office 2010 is that this dynamic duo now supports multiple editors in the same document at the same time.  Yes, you can now have two or more people edit the same document at the same time.  They just cannot edit the same paragraph at the same time.  My book: Office and SharePoint 2010 User’s Guide from Apress covers this topic in detail.  (BTW to the person who gave the book a bad review because some copies of the book went out from the publisher with the wrong cover.  Thanks for letting us know and I’m sure Apress would have sent you a corrected copied had you contacted them.)

Another solution to their problem of not finding a document would be to use Search to find the document.  However our users had such a bad experience with the web search engine prior to our switch to SharePoint that they did not even try it.  They would try to manually step through the library folders to find their documents. I’ve seen libraries with 8 or more levels of folders. Even uses who tried to use Search were not really sure how they could fine-tune their search string and so were often left with hundreds of references in their search results.

Ultimately after stumbling through several different attempts at solutions, we converged on a solution that many others had proposed and we thought we would give it a try.  That solution was to flatten the structure of the library eliminating most if not all of the folders.  Then we would replace that structure with a set of metadata columns to sort and filter the documents visible using the sort and filter options found in the column headers of the library list view.

We experimented with a library that had limited number of document types but which every person in every department had to create new instances of the documents on a fairly regular basis.  We created one metadata column to identify the department.  Another column to identify the type of document, and a third column to identify the year the document was created.  Then we got rid of the folders and defined a set of views for each document type with groupings on department and year.  Now instead of hunting through hundreds of documents, users could quickly find any document of a specific type for a specific person and year within seconds.

Next we took some other libraries and did the same type of thing.  One library held our monthly newsletters.  In that library, we saved both the newsletter source documents which happen to be from Microsoft Publisher and the published version of the newsletter which is a PDF.  We wanted to display the PDFs on a web page so that employees could just go out and click on a PDF link to view the newsletter.  We also decided not to send out copies of the PDF to our newsletter subscribers.  Rather we would just send them a link to the current issue saving storage needs on the Exchange server that no longer needed to store emails with large newsletter attachments.

But then we ran into a problem.  In creating the page to display the newsletters, we decided to use a Content Query web part.  With this web part, we could just point to a library and display all of the contents from that library on the page as links.  The cool part of creating the page this way is that when we add new documents to the library, they automatically appear on the web page displayed to the users without our having to edit the page.   Obviously we did not want to display all of the files from the library.  We only wanted to include references to the PDF files, not the PUB source files.  The obvious answer was to filter the web part on a metadata column that contained either the word: Newsletter or Source.  Okay, the actual word does not matter.  What mattered is we subsequently found out that simple user defined columns could not be used to filter the data in the Content Query web part.

If we created the metadata column for the library by simply creating a new column for the library and populating the column with one of the two document types (Newsletter or Source), we could not reference that field in the filter portion of the content query web part.  After a lot of experimentation, we found that a field called Category located in the Site Collection columns could be added to our library and when we used it, the Category field appeared in the filter selection of the web part and allowed us to correctly filter the data.

For some time, we thought that was the solution.  By using this Site Collection column, we could then filter the documents in the Content Query web part.  We could even rename the column and it would still work.  One day while working on a different library, I just happened to have a field in the library defined at the Site Collection level.  I was surprised to see that field appear in the list of possible fields I could filter on in the Content Query web part.

So I tried a couple of other libraries, adding fields first to the Site Collection columns and then adding the field to the library as a new metadata column.  Each time it worked.  So for some reason that I have not been able to discover, it appeared to us that the Content Query web part filter only works on columns defined at the site collection level.

Whatever the reason, it has formed the basic of our current technique for defining metadata columns in libraries.  Now when our group works with other teams both in and outside of IT, we help them to define the metadata columns that will minimize or eliminate folders while helping them organize their documents.  If the column has the potential of being used as a filter in a Content Query web part, we first define the metadata column as a Site Collection column.  This has worked well for us since then.

Does this mean that we never use folders?  No.  However the only reason we currently resort to folders within a library is to group files that need special permissions.  While we strongly recommend that our users not create special permissions on individual documents in a library because this has a known negative affect on performance, we do recommend that they apply special permissions to folders and then place documents that need those permissions in that folder.

The bottom line for us is that folders are ‘bad’ except to provide special permissions within a library when multiple libraries are not an option.  A better way to search for your documents is to use filters and sorts operating against metadata columns that categorize those files.  Furthermore, it minimizes the chance of creating duplicate copies of the same file.

See you next time.

Training – Expense, Employee Perk, or Business Necessity

Depending on your point of view, you might see employee training as any of these three.  Taken in isolation, employee training does cost money.  There is the actual cost of the training of course, but there may also be travel expenses and room and board expenses if the training is offered out of the immediate area.  Then there is the ‘lost’ productivity while the employee is away from their regular duties.  Finally, some managers are afraid that by providing training, they just make employees more ‘marketable’ to other companies.

On the other hand, an employee may see the investment that the company makes in their training as an indication of their value to the organization.  Maybe salaries have been frozen and one of the ways that management can say thank-you to a productive employee is to send them to a training event to learn additional skills.  Everyone likes to feel appreciated and when someone invests time or money in you, most people will feel that is a benefit received from the organization that shows that management values them.

Of course a company will only invest in an employee in the hope of getting an employee that performs existing tasks better, faster, or more accurately or they can perform new tasks that will ultimately improve the bottom line of the organization.  Even using training, such as attendance at a conference, with no directly measureable return can help the business if it prevents an employee from looking for employment somewhere else where they think they will be appreciated more.  Losing the skills and knowledge of a good employee costs money to replace.  The cost of recruiting new talent can be as much as 20-30% of the employee’s salary.  And if the company has a high turn-over rate, they may need to offer higher salaries to attract new employees who may see that as an indication of problems with the organization.

In the Information Technology business, the one constant is change.  I’ve gone through several paradigm shifts in my career from programming in a version of mainframe BASIC that only allowed at most two characters to define a variable name, to FORTRAN, a little COBOL, Integer BASIC on an Apple II with a whopping 16 K of RAM, ASP and then ASP.NET, dBASE, FoxBase, FoxPro, SQL Server and most recently SharePoint.  In my experience, companies that did not change and adapt fell to their competition.  Employees who did not change and adapt found themselves working in other careers.

No matter how you look at it, training is a necessity whether you manage your own learning goals or your company supports and helps you obtain the training you need to stay current and relevant.  Trained employees can offer their organizations more value.  In exchange, training employees are generally more happy (read as not looking for a job elsewhere) because their job satisfaction is higher when they feel competent to perform the required tasks.

And if your organization does not provide training and you don’t have a lot of spare cash, there are many good books, webcasts and on-line tutorials.  Don’t overlook the value of local user groups.  Finally take the time to attend a local free day of training at a Code Camp, SQL Saturday, or SharePoint Saturday event near you.

7 Tipping Points

Over the past weekend, I read an exceptionally good history book.  I know that most programmers are not quick to pick up a history book and might rather read the Comprehensive Reference to COBOL Development for the Modern Computer instead.  But seriously, this book is worth a look.  its title is: “7 Tipping Points that Saved the World by Chris and Ted Steward.  What makes this book different is that the authors take the reader on a tour of several thousand years of world history to explore just seven events that they maintain hold the key to defining the world we live in today, specifically the freedoms we currently enjoy in America.

While one might argue for a different set of 7 events or maybe 8 events or even 10, perhaps more interesting is the reasoning why the authors chose these events over others.  I will not detail these 7 key events here because that would ruin your discovery of how the authors made their choices, but I will whet your appetite by giving you a short description of each one.

The first event occurred around 700 BC when the Assyrians, after defeating most of the Middle East turned away from conquering Jerusalem leaving it as the single place where Judaism could survive.  How does that affect our democratic free nation?  I’ll leave that to the authors to explain.

The second tipping point occurred a little over 200 years later in 480 BC when a small band of Spartans along with an assorted group of local soldiers tried but failed to protect what we now know as Greece from a Persian invasion at the Thermopylae Pass.  How can democracy rise from such a defeat?  The key lies in what the previously disorganized city-states of Greece did next.

Fast forward 800 years to the rise of Emperor Constantine and his battle over Caesar Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge which ultimately led to re-uniting the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great and the rule of Christianity in the Roman empire.

The fourth key occurred in France or Gaul as it was known at the time at the Battlefield of Poitiers.  Here a small band of warriors under Charles Martel stood against a larger invading force of Muslims and prevented the Muslims from moving deeper into southern Europe.

The fifth tipping point involves Genghis Khan and his descendants.  In the early 13th century Genghis Khan , a title for his real name was Temujin, conquered more territory than any other single man and in far fewer years holding territory from the Pacific Ocean in the east to Eastern Europe in the west.  But why did they stop their advance into the rest of Europe which surely would have changed our history dramatically?  BTW, did you know that a descendant of Genghis Khan still ruled in Uzbekistan until 1920?

The sixth tipping point was not a battle.  Rather it was the discovery of the new world by Columbus.  The problem was that Europe in those days was on the brink of collapse, if not serious decline.  Corruption in the Church and in governments combined with a decrease in innovation, plagues, hunger, death and disease threatened the very continued existence of Europe.  But the discovery of the ‘new world’ gave renewed hope, challenge, access to gold and new food sources, and it also gave people a new sense of destiny.  As you read this chapter, think about some of the parallels to our world today.  Where is our ‘new’ world and did we abdicate our future when we cut the shuttle program without a real replacement?

The final event or tipping point was the Battle of Britain.  This multi-month air war at the start of WWII may have changed the destiny of Europe, not just England.  But as you read this chapter, see if you are not struck as I was by the description of some of the events and attitudes leading up to this event.  The calls for pacifism and disarmament in England are echoed in the news today.  Resentment over the wealthy amid high unemployment of 25 to 70% sounds like it came right out of our newspapers.  Dissatisfaction with the government of Britain and the flirtation with communism as an alternative to the current problems by the intellectual elite of England conned by the propaganda of Stalin’s Russia sounds all too familiar to events today in America.

If at all possible, get this book and read it, study it, learn the patterns because history does repeat itself but only if we let it by not learning from it.

Work on SharePoint Book Nears Completion

For the last several months, actually since September of 2007, I started working on a SharePoint book.  It has been time consuming to say the last.  Over the duration of the project I’ve gotten faster at getting chapters written, but it still took until early February 2008 to finish writing it all.  Now that I’m into just going through comments from the technical reviewers, I am begining to have a little time for myself again.  We are about half way through the technical reviews and I suspect pretty much on schedule for a May 2008 release of the book.  This weekend was the first weekend I did not have to do something for the book.  It has been like a vacation. 
By sharepointmike Posted in Books