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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Heads up on SharePoint Services - A Great Online Collaborative Tool

Per the title of this post, probably something many of you already know, but here's my story.

I currently work for two not-for-profits as a compliance specialist. With all the regulations surrounding grants and contracts, social services people have a boatload of information to keep track of. So we started off by tackling reporting - and I modeled a report tickler system in Outlook that went a long way toward gathering all the information we needed in one place and helping us meet our compliance goal of getting reports in timely. However, I remained convinced that a truly collaborative online work environment was what we needed.

By October 2007, I had been given charge and custody of a product called SharePoint Portal Server by my boss and the IT director. As I looked it over, I recognized the potential SharePoint Services held for giving our agency an intranet and a truly collaborative workspace for report writing, grant writing, and other endeavors. Best of all it was intuitively accessible through our web browser. But first it took a thoughtful observation from a co-worker to get the ball rolling.

One day a co-worker made a thoughtful comment about something I'd already started to realize and try to simplify during the formative evaluation stage of the Outlook Tickler System, namely that receiving all those information-laden tickler emails could feel overwhelming - particularly during a heavy reporting cycle - which for us came quarterly, semi-annually, and annually. During those times, we could have as many as 22 reports going out to funders in the space of a single month and involve 25 to 30 staff members from the different programs in the process. Since over half the reports had a financial component as well, business office staff might find themselves responsible for getting out 15 reports in a month's time after running monthly financials. With a tickler email going out for each stage of our compliance strategy, the business office person could receive potentially receive 60 emails in a month's time. At that rate, even with everything embedded in one email or Calendar entry for a particular report, it was still difficult to get a handle on what was due when, and where to find it.

"I know," I responded. Then, "But at this point I don't know how to fix it."

"I know you don't," she replied patiently - as if, "Who would?"

We left it at that, but that brief exchange started the wheels turning in the back of my head.

... I wonder if there's a way ...

As I've already stated, around that time, the IT Director came to me with a manual and a CD on SharePoint Services. As I looked it over, it dawned on me. Instead of a tickler email for each report, there would be a tickler email for each person - and the email would simply contain the due dates and a link to a worksite for each report. The link would be accessible through the person's web browser. There would still be a tickler email for each stage, but an individual would receive only four tickler emails at the most during a month's time. The report worksite would contain all the resources previously embedded in the tickler emails and calendar entries. . . report instructions, contact information, report formats, report procedures, previous period reports, and funder reporting schedules. Best of all, the worksite would be interactive. No more passing documents back and forth via email. We could all literally be ON THE SAME PAGE. There would still be a calendar but it would be primarily for me, to remind me to get the ball rolling. The calendar content would be much reduced, containing for the most part just the link to the worksite.

On the eve of one of our busy reporting cycles, I spent an intense week learning SharePoint and constructing worksites - which delayed send-off of the Stage One ticklers about a week. Generally, I prefer a piloting or phased implementation plan as opposed to quitting "Cold Turkey." But in this case I went with a gut feeling. While the Outlook-based tickler system had helped us achieve our goal of timely reporting, most of my report writers were still resorting to email as a main resource for finding and relaying what they needed- simply because using Outlook's public folder didn't seem to be catching on. So, relying on their knowledge of the web, I emailed each person a brief (and enthusiastic) STAGE ONE tickler email. It contained a list of their reports due with the links to the worksites, the compliance strategy due dates, and who currently "had the ball." I invited people to try out the links and to contact me with any questions. To make a long story short, the SharePoint Services worksites have been very favorably received to date. While SharePoint interactive worksites do have a singular look and feel, the fact that people were already quite used to finding information and interacting through their web browsers (as witnessed by the success of ebay, and blog sites) worked greatly in our favor.

From the Report Tickler System it has been but a hop, skip, and a jump for us to create worksites for other purposes as well and voila. Another intranet is born ... We still have a lot to learn about it - myself and the organization as a whole. Recently I was asked to do a presentation on SharePoint to get middle managers started thinking about the potential. Here's the link to the presentation and the notes. This is also available from my linked-in public profile and at slideshare.

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