Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Bake A SharePoint Cake

A SharePoint Project is no different to baking a cake. Without the right ingredients it can flop and you can be left with a sticky mess that nobody wants to finish. But what are the 'right ingredients' and where do you start? Perhaps the best way to find out is to follow the example of the television programme 'Blue Peter' and start with "one I made earlier". So lets start by looking at a succesful SharePoint Project, although how we measure success is another question. We will count a successful SharePoint Project as one where one month after 'Go-Live' people are no longer saving documents to their cluttered shared network drive and the word SharePoint is not always preceded by an expletive. The success story we will look at is a Chemical Manufacturing company based in the heart of England. Their SharePoint Project took just over six months (slightly longer than my Gran bakes one of her fruit cakes for), but you can't rush these things. So what ingredients were used in this successful project (the SharePoint one not my Gran's fruit cake). The most important one is a good SharePoint Project Team (obviously 'SharePoint' is a vital ingredient as well). Without a well built Project Team SharePoint can be doomed. The 'Well Built' Project Team needs to include a mixture of the following; 1. Project Owner - This must a member of the Senior Managers or even Mr. Big MD himself who will push SharePoint out to all areas of the business. I know it is tempting, but try to keep this away from the IT Manager. Otherwise who is going to shout at the IT Manager. 2. Project Manager - This person is in charge of the whole Project and they should have a good knowledge of the whole business. Still try and keep this job from the IT Manager as well. 3. Technical Lead - Now IT can get involved or it could be worth employing a SharePoint Consultant (I can recommend Officetalk in the UK, you might even get me). 4. Project Team Members - These are key people from each part of the business where SharePoint will be used. These Project Members can also become Super Users after Go-Live so treat them well and get them some SharePoint training. It is important to make these Project Team Members fans of Sharepoint as they will be the ones promoting it back to their area, or Department. The number of Project Team Members depends on how many Sites you think you will require although the best number is 6 to 10. If you have more than 10 the term about 'too many cooks' becomes true and you will never get anything decided. So now the Project Team is in place and you are ready to start mixing SharePoint with the first Project Team Meeting after weeks of trying to find a suitable day to hold it. The offer of a buffet lunch normally clears a few diaries. Now the ingredients are in place you can start following your recipe that will help lead your first SharePoint Project Team Meeting. This Officetalk freebie will help you start blending. SharePoint Project Checklist If only it was so simple to make a successful football team. Then I could supply Martin O'Neill with a checklist of players he should buy for the Villa.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

SharePoint Towers

In this post I will be talking about the selection of the SharePoint Consultant in SharePoint Projects with a hint of Basil Fawlty thrown in. I have written before about how important SharePoint Consultants are as 'supposedly' they have done it all before and know many of the SharePoint pitfalls (and hopefully the fixes). As a SharePoint Specialist myself (ok 'Consultant'), with Officetalk, I believe I have aided a number of SharePoint Projects, but how does a company find the right SharePoint Consultant? Summertime means a trip to the English seaside armed with an umbrella. Last week I went, with my wife, to stay in a hotel on the East Coast for two nights. The appeal to us of the hotel was that it was a Windmill. So with childhood images of Windy Miller and Camblewick Green in my head we travelled to the seaside. On arrival we were met by the owner (lets call him 'Bernard') who is the star of this posting. Bernard, probably in his late 50's, starts by showing his disappointment that we have arrived ten minutes late. When we booked he had insisted that we inform him of our expected arrival time so he could plan what time to take his dog for a walk. Reminding me of Basil Fawlty, in the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers, Bernard had this continual grin that I felt was hiding his real feelings. I kept expecting him to run out and start attacking his car with a branch. On the subject of cars, I have to mention the small carpark, that only really fitted five small cars, but Bernard insisted that it could accommodate seven medium sized cars - if they double parked (there was even a car parking position diagram in the Welcome Pack). This tight parking meant that nobody could actually get their car out of the car park during their holiday, but Bernard did request that guests left their car keys with him if they were leaving the premises. So why am I talking about an eccentric-hotelier in my SharePoint Blog? The reason is because you need to choose the right SharePoint Consultant. You don't want someone who tells you exactly when you should start your project or one who tries to cram too many items into your Project Scope. Don't let the SharePoint Consultant try to dictate how many sites are included in your SharePoint and never lose sight of whose Project it is. I have to blame myself for the choice of hotel because my wife did point out several bad reviews she had read about the hotel and it's owner a week before. At least we took the advice over avoiding the microwaved kippers. So when choosing your SharePoint Consultant make sure you ask to see some references from other SharePoint Projects they have worked on and if possible do your own research. Another highlight of Bernard's bizarre behaviour was how he insisted on us deciding what we wanted for breakfast the next morning the very second we had finished today's breakfast. Don't let your SharePoint Consultant force you into quick decisions. The game of 'Find the Bernard Sign' also became a favourite pastime. These polite signs included "No Take-Away Food in Rooms", "No Eating on the Bed", "No Cars Entering or Leaving Car Park after 9pm" and "Take all Your Belongs Home. People often leave mobile phone chargers". Again take on board your SharePoint Consultants advice, but make sure that they don't restrict you too much. At times Bernard was trying to organise our holiday and I even felt I had to inform him of all our plans for the day. I am sure he looked disappointed when I said we were spending the morning at the beach, perhaps he was worried about us bringing sand back on our shoes. Or maybe he just didn't like the fact I was wearing my Aston Villa football top in his hotel lobby. I had to get a mention of the Villa in somewhere this week ! To be fair I must comment on the good points about Bernard. He was always there (yes 'always') and always offering to help. On arrival he gave us a very useful map and a quick briefing about the local area. I believe a good SharePoint Consultant should also always be available for you and be able to start by giving you a taster of the kind of things SharePoint can do. At Officetalk we often start a SharePoint project by giving the company a copy of our Checklist and then giving them time to see which areas they want to include. It is also important that the SharePoint Consultant communicates in ways that you and your project team understand. You don't need lots of SharePoint jargon you just need advice and suggestions that you can consider. Even if they develop sites or webparts (SharePoint controls) for you make sure you understand them and have documented how they work. So always be careful when choosing your SharePoint Consultant because you don't want to end up staying at SharePoint Towers, especially if it is 'Faulty' !! [Make sure you click on the Windy Miller link because it is priceless]

Friday, 18 July 2008

Excel Services – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) has a number of clever features and parts that at first glance look pretty impressive, but these all come with a level of frustration. One of these much hailed features is ‘Excel Services’ and this is what I am writing about this week. Now, over the last two weeks I have compared MOSS to Sky television and SharePoint itself to the film Mamma Mia so I thought I would complete a hat-trick of comparisons this week. So what can I compare the merits of ‘Excel Services’ to? It has to be the former Villa player and current England international Peter Crouch. Appropriate as this week Peter has been on his travels again rejoining Portsmouth from Liverpool. So why is ‘Excel Services’ like Peter Crouch? Well it isn’t because it is a much travelled, tall, lanky and got big feet! The Good Excel Services like a 6’ 7” footballer does seem a neat idea. The ability to have a webpart in SharePoint that can display live Excel style tables and charts is very useful. Excel Services lets you link directly to the latest data from an SQL database and automatically refreshes the chart. Charts are great because they look colourful and make the SharePoint site stand out. A bit like Peter’s height. With Excel Services you can share a working spreadsheet with a whole host of people without having to email lots of copies and you can stay in control of it without having to worry that John from Accounts is going to accidentally delete all the October sales figures. One of the great features of Excel services is that you can include a pivot table with the chart which can allow users to change filters and ranges to see different views of the chart. For example they can select only data from June 2004 (when Peter played in the World Cup). Excel Services also includes the ability to access the ‘real’ Excel Spreadsheet where the data is stored. For displaying RAG (no, not an old piece of cloth, but the now trendy Red, Amber, Green Service Levels) a pie chart via Excel Services on SharePoint is ideal. The data is continually available to anyone who needs to see it. SharePoint can use popular Dashboards to display these Excel services. A feature I personally like about SharePoint Excel Services is the option to include parameters. These parameters restrict the areas in the table, or chart, that a user can change. Perhaps this is similar to the way Rafa Benitiz used to restrict Crouch’s appearances. What is good about Peter Crouch and why do so many teams repeatedly pay so much for him? He is a good finisher with a good strike rate (it seems according to the tabloids both on and off the pitch) and has great close control, oh and he is quite tall. The Bad The more you use Excel Services the more you begin to accept its weaknesses and work around them. Many managers have realised with Peter Crouch that despite his height he really can’t jump and is prone to getting his legs in a tangle. So what is ‘bad’ about Excel Services? Any version of Excel below 2007 cannot view the spreadsheets behind it although there is a free converter you can download from Microsoft. You are also unable to publish .xls documents using Excel Services, they have to be .xlsx (the new Office 2007 version). Now, you would have thought that one advantage of Excel Services in SharePoint would be that you don’t need an Excel client to view them. Well, this is true but you do need Excel (and yes the latest 2007 version) to create the Excel Services to start with. Unlike Google Spread there is no web-based editing tool. This is like having Peter Crouch upfront, but nobody in the team who can cross a ball. That’s where Steve McClaren went wrong! What else is there to moan about with Excel Services? The way that you lose a number of the features that you have in your original Excel can be frustrating. That nice hyperlink you had, the clever way you had frozen the top or that cool flash animated text. Excel Services is like Peter quite basic. He isn’t a tall Michael Owen. The Ugly Peter Crouch may not be in same league as Peter Beardsley, or Ian Dowie for ugliness,( allegedly) but he won’t win many beauty contests. His long matchstick legs make him looked awkward. Although, his lack of Daniel Craig style physique, does not prevent him being a valuable asset as a striker. Excel Services again falls short in appearance because for improved performance Microsoft has restricted the appearance of charts in Excel Services. In super Excel 2007 you may have created a dramatic three dimensional shaded pie chart with a relaxing water-bubble background, but when published in Excel Services all that remains is a bland 2D pie chart with no background. Don’t panic there is always a webpart from Bamboo Solutions for creating pretty SharePoint charts if Excel Services does not meet your needs. Excel Services may not be the ‘all singing and dancing’ answer to reporting in SharePoint, but it is a pretty useful addition and has a big future. Like Excel Services Peter Crouch isn’t pretty and has his knockers, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if he had re-signed for the Villa instead of Portsmouth.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Mamma Mia SharePoint

Two very different visits to Birmingham this week. First, to the fountains of Brindley Place on a wet Monday afternoon for the spectacular launch of the new Aston Villa kit and then on Thursday night off to Star City for the first night of the Mamma Mia film. The Abba based film was superb even allowing for the campness and Pierce Brosnan’s not totally in tune singing. So why is this musical film so good? Mamma Mia has so many things going for it, which is similar to Microsoft’s SharePoint. For a start it features the Abba songs which these days, unlike in the late 70’s, are ‘cool’. Everyone likes Abba and everybody will dance to ‘Dancing Queen’. It was so different in 1978 when my Abba pencil case was mocked - I never did find out who drew that moustache on Anni-Frid. Similar to the ‘Abba factor’, a major plus for SharePoint is that it is so fully linked into Microsoft Office 2007. Now considering that over 95% of companies worldwide use MS Office, that does give it an unfair advantage over any of it's competitors. But any good product needs more than just one thing going for it just like Mamma Mia. The very funny musical has an excellent cast including the always popular ‘I don't really always play the same character’ Colin Firth, Mrs ‘I pull funny faces’ Walters and the talented singing Meyrl Streep. The main features of SharePoint are it's powerful Workflow, the mighty Search Engine and the impressive Document Management. It is all good stuff and SharePoint's website style front-end with the ability to create artistic Corporate Branding means it almost as appealing as the Greek Island that makes Mamma Mia so magically colourful. I did say ‘almost’! Mamma Mia will be the feel good cinema hit of summer and will appeal to many different types of people. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or where you come from, everyone has a favourite Abba song. It also doesn’t matter which type of organisation you are part of, or which department you work in, SharePoint can help you. It really does cover everyone as the impressive officetalk demonstration sites will show you. It might not be as funny as Julie Walters trying to get a 'man after midnight' but SharePoint will let you share more information than ever across your business. Look beneath the surface of SharePoint and there are some hidden gems. In Mamma Mia you have an appearance of Benny (or is it Bjorn, they always look so similar with all that facial hair) and the Swedish flag is flying on the yacht. One of SharePoint’s hidden joys is the ability to make Calendar Appointments into Workspaces. It might not sound a lot but within two minutes you can create a Meeting Workspace for all of your Board Meetings for the next fifty years. You can add an item to the Agenda for the meeting in May 2024 to arrange a celebration for the 50th Anniversary of Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. Another SharePoint highlight is the Alert feature in the way it lets you know exactly when someone has added a new item to that folder you are monitoring. The whole Mamma Mia film is a terrific piece of entertainment. Although, of course, if you analyse it too closely you realise that there isn’t really much of a plot and if there is it was possibly stolen from ‘Three Men and A Baby’, oh and how did the daughter find all the addresses out in the first place? SharePoint also has it’s flaws, like only having 2D charts in Excel Services, but these do not prevent it from being an outstanding piece of software that will delight the vast majority of customers and I believe be around for a long long. Microsoft are determined that SharePoint is the future and in the words of those four Swedish legends ‘The Winner Takes It All !!’.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Which SharePoint (MOSS or WSS) Suits You, Sir?

As the cost of living continues to soar it is time to tighten our belts. Don’t worry I am not going to go all political in this week’s offering, although if Mr. Brown does happen to stumble across this blog perhaps he could help by knocking a couple of pence off the fuel tax . As this is unlikely we have to make cuts elsewhere and unfortunately in our house the first thing to go was the monthly Sky subscription (well it was either that or my Villa season ticket). So instead of paying £24.99 a month to receive Sky with the Sports channels (not missed quite so much in the summer) we had to downgrade to FreeView. We all have to make sacrifices; even the cat is now having Lidl catfood. Now with FreeView, no longer can I watch the endless re-runs of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ on UKGold or keep up with latest football news on Sky Sports News, instead I only have forty channels to surf through. Comparing FreeView with Sky started me thinking about SharePoint. Everyone when looking at SharePoint asks the same question of the Officetalk SharePoint Specialists, “what is the difference between SharePoint Server (which some annoying person decided to call MOSS) and Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) ?” It is a question that I dread because it isn’t straightforward to explain without going into long boring feature lists, but suddenly I had the perfect example because it is similar to the ‘FreeView or Sky’ argument. Apart from to see Helen Chamberlain on ‘Soccer AM’ why do people choose Sky over FreeView? No, stay with me on this because I think the comparison could work. WSS is like FreeView because it is impressive, a big improvement on what came before and it is FREE. Well, free if you already have Windows Server 2003, but then you need a telly and a TV Licence to watch FreeView. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server though, like Sky, is an extra that you have to buy. So what do you get with MOSS for your money that WSS doesn’t give you. With Sky I can get my Sports channels, the option of High Definition, some interactive games, the option to select my favourite channels and if I had Sky Plus I could even rewind live programmes. That would have been useful when that shapely streaker ran across the wicket at Lords. With MOSS I get the chance to link to external data sources (like SQL Server or SAP R/3) and present the information using pretty Excel charts. MOSS also gives me the options of individual MySites and Audience targeting (very useful with larger companies). As Sky gives you more channels MOSS gives you more Site Templates (including Dashboards and KPI sites) with more inbuilt Workflow. Other advantages with going full MOSS are to use web-facing InfoPath Forms, it allows Single-Sign-On and Content Publishing. When you look closer there are a lot of extra features with MOSS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are features that you need. Many organisations will find WSS meets the majority of their needs so why have Sky when all you really want is to watch the repeated Eastenders on BBC 3. The best way to find out is to have a look at the “Officetalk MOSS v WSS Comparison Sheet” . This lists the main features of SharePoint and says if they are available on WSS or MOSS. I hope you will find this useful. Now, maybe Sky will read this post and think that I have promoted their services so well that they will give me my old Sky package back free for the whole of the football season. Officetalk MOSS v WSS Comparison Sheet