Observations from AIIM SharePoint Summit

I just returned from the recent AIIM Expo show in Philadelphia. I haven’t been to AIIM since 2002 when we were building out our imaging product. I had a couple of reasons to go this time. I’ll keep the first one to myself for now, but the other was because Microsoft was making a big splash with the SharePoint Summit. I was very interested in what there messaging would be like to the “hard core” ECM market. All of the sessions that I attended were in the SharePoint Summit track.

The keynote was delivered by Eric Swift, the new GM of the division, and by Ryan Duguid, the “ECM guy” at Microsoft. Eric gave a very good talk, and I was extremely impressed by Ryan, who spoke at several sessions throughout the show.

Usability

A couple of great quotes from Ryan – ”ECM works when its invisible to the end user”. I couldn’t agree more. People will use a system when they can see a value for themselves, and when it won’t cause them much disruption. Far too often systems are “imposed” upon end users, and one thing that’s certainly true about information workers is that if they can find away around a difficult system, they’ll take it.

Ryan also said “If you can’t show users their personal payback, they’ll never adopt your system” which is likely why, according to Doculabs,50% of all ECM projects fail. According to Doculabs,this is due to the exclusive focus on one specific area of functionality required by one specific area of the business without taking into account the needs of the wider user community. All of which is saying the same thing.

The final keynote session was presented by Ryan and Bert Sandie from Electronic Arts. Their talk was on how to provide an excellent user experience, partly by using gaming principles. On the surface, that sounds odd, but it makes a ton of sense. If you makes tasks more interesting, people will be more likely to perform them.

As an example, Ryan demonstrated Ribbon Hero, which is an add-in to the Office suite. It installs a button in the ribbon, and presents you with a set of challenges. These challenges are application related tasks and it helps you to varying degrees as you perform them, and you gain skill points by doing so. It allows you to compete with others, increasing your motivation. If you really want to drive use, hand out weekly rewards for “top scores”. A perfect example of applying the gaming concept.

Another concept that came out of this session that I’ve been preaching for years is that you should always include and understand the end users in any application design.Look at what people do, don’t tell them that it’s wrong – adapt it into your solution, and ideally improve it. If you don’t provide users a means of doing what they need to do inside the organization, users will find a way to do it outside.

Bert presented an interesting case study in usability. If you are familiar with the default search page in SharePoint, you’ll know that it is even simpler than Google’s. It’s essentially a white page with a search box and a go button. EA took that page and decorated it to look almost exactly like Google’s. Of course it said Electronic Arts instead of Google, but the letters were even alternately coloured. What was interesting is that by doing that one little thing, usage of the search engine increased 30%.

Bert also demonstrated that he could show that the creation of a single document paid for their entire system, and made a final point that the right user experience combines functionality, usability and aesthetics.

I really liked this focus on usability and community, which seemed to be a theme throughout the SharePoint summit, and was really refreshing to see at an AIIM show. I think that it’s safe to say that the large ECM players have not historically been particularly interested in usability.

Records Management

Microsoft waded into the records management area with the Records Center in 2007. It didn’t exactly meet with glowing reviews, but they’re really hit it out of the park in 2010. Through the new records center it supports all of the traditional records management requirements with file plans etc, but at the same time, it brings RM to the end user through in place records management. Users no longer need to go through many steps and secret rituals to get documents under management, a document (and any other piece of content!) can be declared a record through a simple click of a button. Document routing makes sure that if necessary the content moves to the record center while leaving behind a stub.

Ryan Duguid showed a slide which indicated that if left unchecked, an organization that currently manages 2 TB of data will be managing 45 TB of data in 5 years time. However, if disposition policies were put in place that disposed of 10, 20 and 30% of content annually, that future growth number would shrink to 25, 10 and 4 TB respectively. The RM features in SharePoint 2010 can help bring this reality about

Interestingly, the next day Cyrus Mistry gave a talk on the way that Google manages their content. In essence, they don’t. The mantra is to keep absolutely everything forever, open it up to everyone and rely on search to find it. I actually agree with the opening up concept, but I think it’s impractical, not to mention legally dangerous to leave stuff lying around forever.

Cyrus also pointed out a couple of policies that I might consider implementing. One is that every Google employee writes a small blurb (very short) on their past week’s activities, and what their plans for the next week are. That is visible to everyone. I sort of like it from a few angles. Another is that users can contribute ideas to a central “idea pool”. Ideas are then voted upon, and if an idea gets enough votes, it becomes a project.

CMIS Connector Announced

At the show, it was announced that Microsoft will be shipping a connector for the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard. This will allow SharePoint to act as a “front end” for external content management systems, and vice versa. This will allow for easy integration with legacy document management systems, and give the users of these systems a better experience without sacrificing capability.

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Mapping in SQL Server 2008 R2 Reporting Services

The latest version of Reporting Services, due out any day now, has built in support for mapping. This is a very welcome addition and adds significantly to the “cool” factor. I recently completed a quick demo project using public data available from Elections Canada, and I will be sharing some observations over the next few days. I’m a newbie to mapping, so I’m sure that that  the GIS folks out there will think this is quaint, but this really does take a technology that was previously available to a select few, and make it available to a much broader audience, something that Microsoft is particularly good at.

Firstly, I have to mention that this was built using the November CTP of SQL Server, and was implemented on SharePoint 2010 beta. Technology Preview on Beta would typically be a recipe for frustration, and while there were bugs, it went together surprisingly well.

There are essentially 2 major data components to a map report,the spatial data and the analytic data. The spatial data contains the map elements themselves,and data that will be used to relate to the analytic data, where the analytic data contains the data that is to be mapped. In my first example, I have data that describes all of the riding boundaries in Canada, along with their metadata (riding number, province, etc). I also have election result data that can be grouped by riding number, so a relationship is created between them. I’ll demonstrate below.

You can create a  map in any Reporting Service report, either using the Report Designer in Business Intelligence Design Studio (BIDS), or by using the new Report Builder end user application. Using BIDS, you need to drop a map control onto the design surface to start the map wizard, and Report Builder gives you the option at create time.

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The wizard then prompts you for your spatial data. You have 3 choices as shown above. The map gallery lets you choose from the full list of pre-packaged maps  available in the product consisting of a grand total of 1 country, the USA. To be fair, this is by design. There are so many border disputes in the world that the US is the only safe bet. In fact, as a Canadian, we share a border with 4 different countries, and unless I’m mistaken, we have border disputes with three of them. This leads us to the next choice, the ESRI Shapefile. These files are the de facto standard for spatial data, and are readily and freely available from the public domain. The Shape files used in this example came originally from Elections Canada. Finally, SQL Server, starting with 2008 supports a spatial data type. This is essentially a series of polygons. It’s a little known feature, and spatial data is supported directly within Management Studio, as can be seen below:

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Whenever a query result contains spatial data, a little “Spatial results” tab appears which allows you to visualize the results.

Which one to choose? Well importing the shapefile directly is fast, but using SQL data gives you much more flexibility from a querying standpoint. Also, if the gallery or shapefile are chosen, the data is embedded directly in the report, which is not the case with SQL.

Luckily there’s an excellent little utility available from SharpGIS that makes it very easy to just move your shape files up to SQL.

The next screen you see will depend on your choice, but in the case of SQL you can either choose a shared dataset that has the spatial data, or you can create an embedded dataset for this purpose. Once the data has been defined, you can configure the map’s viewport.

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Here you set the zoom level, and can set the panning parameters. You can also choose the type of data that the map is to use – in this case polygon, but other options are point and line (for single point and route type data). Also of note are the two options at the bottom. You can choose to embed map data in the report (removing reliance on the back end data for the map data, effectively creating a snapshot). The second option is to add a Bing Maps layer – allowing you to add the richness of Bing Maps to your visualizations. However, this can only be done if your map data is geographic. Geographic data maps directly to real geographic positions (latitude and longitude) whereas planar data is simply a set of shapes that fit together.

The next window allows you to choose your visualization.

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The basic map will only show the data in the map itself, and required no further data. the color analytical map essentially fills in the regions according to analytical data, and the bubble map positions analytical data on the map. Additional layers can be added to any map after the fact. In our example, we choose the Color Analytical Map.

The next screen prompts us to either choose a shared dataset that contains our analytical data, or to create a new dataset. Once we have selected the data to use, the next dialog box allows us to establish the relationship between the map data and the analytical data. In our case, the field FED_NUM in the map data corresponds to the EDANum field in our election results data.

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Finally, we choose a theme (which defines the “chrome” of the report), the field to use to determine our our colouring, the patterns to use to visualize the data, and what to display as a label, if anything.

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And that’s all there is to creating a basic map! at this point, you can click run in Report Designer, or preview in BIDS, and you should see the results of your analysis as below, which in our case are the results of the Canadian 2008 General Election on a riding by riding basis.

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Many things need to be adjusted further (zoom, which color to use for which party, and a number of other things), and I’ll cover some of these in a future blog post, but as you can see, the map wizard is quite capable of delivering immediate results.

Bring on the RTM of SQL Server 2008 R2!

Back to VMWare Workstation

I’m pretty disappointed with Windows Virtual PC (the latest version). It’s April 2010, and it still doesn’t support 64 bit guest operating systems, which I believe is a pretty glaring omission. I’m a big fan of Microsoft’s server virtualization (Hyper-V) but the client side is just so lacking, I’ve been forced to find another solution. For a number of reason (chief among them video performance) I do not want to put Server 2008 on my laptop.

Microsoft actually forced the issue themselves. The latest waves of server releases (SharePoint, SQL Server) are 64 bit only. As a developer/architect I need to run these servers from my laptop, which makes it impossible to use Windows VPC. Originally Windows VPC also required hardware virtualization, which made it unusable on some of our systems, but they have recently removed that restriction. Good.

I was originally  a VMWare user, and I only switched to VPC after I noticed that it performed considerably better on Vista 64 bit systems. VMWare had become a dog. I was also hoping that using Microsoft virtualization would make it easy to move VMs between client systems and Hyper-V. Alas, that was not to be the case.

Given all that, I recently installed VMWare 7, and I’ve been quite impressed with its capabilities and its performance. Don’t get me wrong,it would be much simpler,and cheaper for me as a Microsoft Partner to use MS technology across the board, but until such a time as they support 64 bit guest operating systems (which is something they have been very quiet about), it’s simply not an option for me.

Changing the name of the Title Field in SharePoint

2011-01-24 12:17:38

Don’t. Really, don’t.

The Title field is the only exposed site column in the Item content type. Pretty much every single list item across the board inherits from this content type. Therefore, when you change the name of the title field, you’re changing it for all lists in the site collection.

The problem is, that there’s no warning that that’s about to happen, and if you start from a list, you may be under the impression that you’re only changing it in that list.

Pretty much not cool.

So let’s say that you do change it. You can just change it back, right? Wrong. The Word “Title” is a reserved name in SharePoint and you can’t use it in a field name. There’s no way in the UI to change it back.

However, you can do it through the object model (API) by writing code, or using a Powershell script (get used to Power Shell everybody…). Thanks to the From the Field Blog for this highly useful Powershell script:

[System.Reflection.Assembly]::LoadWithPartialName(“Microsoft.SharePoint”)?
$site=[Microsoft.Sharepoint.SPSite](“http://“)?
$web=$site.openWeb()?
$fld = $web.Fields.getFieldByInternalName(“Title”)?
$fld.Title = “Title”?
$fld.PushChangesToLists = $true?
$fld.Update()

And yes, I’ve had to use it!