Entries Tagged 'sharepoint' ↓

Drop the Mouse. Put Your Hands in the Air. Back Away From the UI.

Our intrepid CIO, Justin Webb, has far too much common sense for his own good. He’ll never make it in this town.

Seriously, Justin and I were here together in 2008 for the coming of Sharepoint (before he was CIO). He and I slogged through the implementation of that baby over an 18-month period that felt like it would never end. It gave birth to a bouncing baby EagleNet.

Since November of 2009, EagleNet has been our University’s portal. “Portal” is one of those words that sounded SO sexy in 2003, but by the time we got to Sharepoint, we had seen the communications, training, and maintenance headaches that portals can bring. The dream of aggregating communications based on ERP data about a person’s role is a good one. The problem is, the companies that deal with data should be told to, “Drop the mouse. Put your hands in the air. Back away from the UI.” (and no one will get hurt).

Sharepoint is one of those nifty all-in-one tools that aggregates, collaborates, authenticates, productivity-ates, and gets-us-cute-prom-dates. It’s another of those motherships that promises all things wonderful.

The best thing about motherships is that they are, out of the box, pretty robust and sturdy. The trouble with motherships is that they are very, very hard to steer. That makes them GREAT for corporate environments with few differentiating factors within internal audiences. A single, sturdy, homely UI works okay in that mediocre kinda way when you stick with a vanilla installation and provision using the delivered tools.

But higher ed audiences are nothing if not idiosyncratic — not just within a University, but between universities. Student populations can be undergraduate, residential, international, non-traditional, in any number of major programs. And that is just one audience group. Throughout the year, each of these many audiences requires a clear way to get to information.

So the object was to use Sharepoint as a layer of targeted communications over the portal, essentially mimicking what we had with Luminis, providing single sign-on to our Banner SSB for students in the bargain. This involved a LOT of customization, including some pretty complicated code for maintaining a Banner session within the Sharepoint authentication scheme. The developer who did this (no longer with UMW) was truly a genius in getting this to work. But, not everyone has a genius on staff.

Bottom line: We twisted Sharepoint into a pretzel to make it do what it’s doing. And here’s what it’s doing:

  • Complicating getting directly to Banner SSB,
  • Delivering 3 widgets of targeted/authenticated information for the new incoming student, useful for 3 months out of the year, and too complicated to manage to allow for distributed content authorship, so content management stays within IT.
  • Delivering about 9 widgets of personalized information from Banner SSB to all audiences.
  • Hosting unused personal pages, called “MySites,” for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • Delivering a collection of about 80 or so collaboration sites, of which a handful are being used actively.
  • Serving as a pretty spiffy scalable reporting tools platform.

Other than the last two bullet points (in bold above), EagleNet doing very little for all the development and maintenance costs, not to mention the development and testing work involved every time Banner or Sharepoint is upgraded. Well, Banner SSB has an all new interface called Cascade, and Sharepoint is moving from 2007 to 2010. Time to commit to hiring more .NET programming skill for more customization and retooling of this enormously complicated environment for little UI benefit, or cut bait.

Then there is mobile. Delivering itty-bitty widgets of information just doesn’t cut it in a mobile UI. On mobile, you want to get the info, and get out, because, let’s face it, you’re driving.

Snide remarks aside, I would argue that this notion of having a web-based UI that provides pertinent GROUP and PERSONAL messages and data is a viable one. So, how to extricate that essentially sound idea from a UI that was developed in service to the infrastructure, rather than the user? I thought you’d NEVER ask.

Enter the work Curtiss and I have been doing on Banner and Active Directory data in WordPress, using Banner Web services. It is a lightweight infrastructure, without all the vendor lockin nonsense of a “systems-based” delivered UI. It is the notion of small pieces, loosely joined, coming to fruition in a very big and profound way. Here’s what we are going to begin developing (implementation quite a ways down the road, so don’t panic!):

  • Use WordPress for the UI.
  • Aggregate targeted web content from posts throughout the university Multi-network environment using RSS feeds, FeedWordPress, and our own Cross-Site Featured Posts plugin.
  • Deliver Banner Web Services (already doing that) to WordPress based on AD authentication (already doing that, too). That allows the viewing of targeted (WordPress aggregated) and personal (Banner Web Services) content upon login.
  • Implement a Central Authentication Service (CAS) server to maintain a session between authenticated WordPress and Banner SSB.

Here is what you get at the end:

  • A flexible, accessible, responsive, mobile-friendly UI that leverages skills on staff AND within a broad WordPress community
  • No more Rube Goldberg authentication code in .NET that needs to be retooled every time Microsoft or Ellucian decides to improve on their products, dragging their clunky, afterthought UI’s along for the ride.
  • Banner screens break out from frames and use standard form layout, minimizing re-styling and customization.
  • IT concentrates on security, authentication, hosting and data delivery.
  • The Web team concentrates on aggregation and UI.
  • University Relations and the rest of the University continue to deliver content to their stakeholders through WordPress, as they are already.
  • Open standards, application-agnostic methods for authentication and session maintenance that could potentially apply to any number of apps and aggregation layers in the future.
  • Complex, compulsory, EagleNet portal layer is replaced by an opt-in Sharepoint installation that continues to support its core functionality: internal collaboration and reporting tools.
  • No more supporting thousands of abandoned, hard to manage “MySites”. UMW Blogs and a Domain of One’s Own are, after all, the most useful personal web publishing platforms we have in-house, and the internet is lousy with cheap or free personal web publishing environments that people can share with the WORLD, not just internally, as MySites do.
I know this is a lot to swallow in words. I have a way to illustrate these changes in simple pictures but, for now, I’ll leave it at the above. I’m pretty jazzed — it’s so nice to be around so long that you can break the stuff you helped to build, and build it better. Also nice to have Justin Webb as a CIO who is interested in solving problems, minimizing costs, being willing to kill a darling or two in  support of the UMW mission in the bargain. Justin Webb (IT champion of the Domain of One’s Own) is an unsung hero — oh, and a Mary Washington alum, by the way.

But Can it Core a Apple?

One of my favorite things about infomercials is the way they define the problem that their particular product or service is designed to solve. Using some of the most hilarious bad-acting pantomimes, we see people ineptly struggling to do the most simple tasks. It’s like they occupy a parallel universe where no one can negotiate the perils of their own living room. YouTube Preview Image

These people don’t exist in real life. If anyone WERE that inept, let alone that prone to overblown emoting while no one is watching, they’d need medical attention. It’s the people themselves in these ads that are the problem. They are largely not mindful, and turn their troubles with life outward on the circumstances surrounding them.

If they are tripping on things, why didn’t they pick them up in the first place? If their couch smells bad from the dog, why do they let the dog sit on the couch? If they can’t find their keys, why don’t they put them in the same place every day when they get home? You get the picture. The PRODUCT comes along to solve problems of their own making. Money is spent on some THING that, inevitably, will be as misused as all the other unmanageable things that surround them.

No product can solve a lack of mindfulness, responsibility, and acceptance. It has not been invented yet. There is no widget, lotion, toy, consultant, or app that will make up for the work we need to do ourselves.

I have come across this issue time and time again in over a decade of work in web design. We think the next web authoring tool, or content management tool, will instantly make us all communicators. But, it doesn’t. Even in our current WordPress environment, which is as scalable, extensible, and user-friendly as it gets, you can’t get anything out of it if you’re simply transferring old habits into a shiny new system. Sites that had their slide show set up in October, with a set of static links, that have not been changed or updated are the norm — even with the system we have set up which is “so easy a child can do it.”

We continue to ignore the fundamental problem: we need a sense of ownership and responsibility for managing and sharing content in the online world. It is no longer okay to laugh off managing your website with an “I’m no good with computers!” infomercial-before-ineptitude. There is no computer, and no application, that will turn such a mindset into a creative, engaged, communications machine. It isn’t ABOUT computers or technology or “the web” at all. It’s about valuing clear communications with the people you care about — when that’s a priority, it’s amazing how only a few simple tools can support that mindset.

But, still, we maintain this belief that some new app will take care of the lack of actual creative thoughtfulness, coordination, energy, and — dare I say it — CONTENT that is the issue.

I was at UMW for the Luminis (“EagleLink”) implementation. Then, the Sharepoint (“EagleNet”) implementation. Indeed, I was deeply involved in the development of the interface and content organization within both of these platforms. I’ve presided over the implementation of Dreamweaver, Contribute, and WordPress. So, I know a few things about the impact (or lack of it) made by “systems” on the way people actually communicate in the digital space.

After the Luminis implementation, where this supposedly “dynamic” platform became just an encumbrance on the way to Banner Self-Service, I learned that you can’t BUILD a network, build user input, from a central point. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. And they didn’t — except to get to Banner (which you could get to on the web already).

Sharepoint became Luminis on steroids. It was a hard sell, most of all to me. This is not to say that Sharepoint has no value — on the contrary, it can be a very useful collaboration tool. But, it’s only as good as the collaborators. If you are not invested in sharing information and collaborating in a digital space, applications like Sharepoint, or Luminis, or, dare I say, WordPress are USELESS.

I implore the decision-makers at higher education institutions to think before acquiring more expensive technologies before we solve the problem of our spotty engagement in communicating via the web and new media to our constituent groups. (NB: some notable exceptions in our WordPress community DO exist). University-wide communications is not a technology acquisition problem. It is not a technology training exercise. It’s not a “rally around the brand” initiative. It’s simply an ingrained understanding that we live, largely, online in terms of institutional communications. That simple understanding would have us all tweeting, facebooking, blogging, vlogging, texting, and using all sorts of freely available tools.

The shift has to be away from emulating how we did it in the flesh and in print to doing it altogether differently — not regarding the web as “technology,” but a palpably human space we all inhabit together with a new, engaging and challenging set of rules. I hate to tell you, but the prospective and current student are already there. People like Jim Groom, Alan Levine, Tim Owens, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush are already there. I fear most of us are still are living in our file cabinets, tri-fold brochures, memos, portals, meetings, training sessions, enterprise systems, and emails — all with “matching” web pages inside a system that can provide so very much more with resources we already have. And that is very, very unfortunate indeed.

In closing, to lighten things up a bit, below is the granddaddy of all infomercials, with Ed Norton providing one of the BEST “before” pantomimes in television history:

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