DISA and Federal KM Symposium Feedback

It has taken me way too long to get to writing this. With a little time off between contracts, I decided to take a couple days and visit this symposium because I once worked in the Office of Knowledge Management at DISA. I wanted to see how much things had changed, hopefully for the better. A good man, Bill Balko, is still involved. He worked in a different office when I was at DISA but was highly engaged, and it looks like he really stepped up after a few shake ups.

When new senior leaders arrive to any government organization, they love to reorganize the structure to “streamline business functions” because the bullet looks good on their evaluations.

I don’t want to rehash the whole conference, just something that really bothered me. Most of the conference seemed to focus on something you won’t see happen within government on a big enough scale to take note: artificial intelligence. All we really need is Amazon’s Alexa doing your taxes…

The conference ended with a number of folks from the IRS on a panel to discuss the future of KM, but it was a lot of self-congratulatory praise. They gave metrics about their communities of practice. They had something like 22 with a high of 90+ members in one of the communities, 2 of them—JUST TWO—crossed business units. This is what bothered me. As proud as they were of themselves, only two of these communities were communities. The rest are really just team sites. They might have engaged in the tenants of KM to identify, capture, store, and share knowledge, but a site isn’t a community of practice just because you say it is, even if they are engaging in KM.

Communities are there to break through the tradition silos of information and communication. It is where you get all of the people engaged in a particular function across a large agency and all of its business units to talk horizontally in the organization. If all of the people who had a purchase card to get supplies for an office in the whole organization were to meet in a space and discuss how they were processing their purchase orders faster, where to get government discounts, and ways to save their offices money, that would be a community. They all engage in the same practice but they work across the organization. If, however, you get all of the people who report to the same boss to meet and discuss whatever their mission within the organization is, IT IS NOT a community. It is the difference as that between a habitat and environment or between weather and climate. Communities think bigger.

Another thing I really didn’t like about their metrics was just saying how many members these groups had rather than how many active members there were in the group. When I first established the SharePoint community of practice at the last intelligence agency I supported, there were two active users out of maybe 20 for the fist two months. Without a decent amount of content and constant nudging along, everyone else was just there to learn what I was typing up in how to articles and such. Eventually, I got a number of others to join in, and then I got SharePoint analysts, site admins, front end developers, etc to all jump in from other intelligence agencies. Fast forward, the current steward of the community just told us the other day that a former member of the group who had gone to another agency working on different network had created her own community doing the same thing and was asking for some of the material, and she was getting the people at that agency involved.

That is real KM. Even though I left that agency 16 months ago, I was able to not just transfer my knowledge but get others to further pass that knowledge. We motivated them to stay engaged and grow the community further. People from some of these agencies still call me to ask what I was thinking when I created certain things. You can get a lot from reading someone’s posts, but your problem is rarely exactly like what one discusses in his or her posts. Being able to find those who already possess that tacit knowledge and get them to have a conversation pays far more dividends.

To end my rant, I’m sure those folks at the IRS made leaps and bounds in the last few years to justify their KM award they were so proud to advertise. I’m sure they worked hard to get where they are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they won, however, based on having great KM practices. It is because the rest of the government still sucks so much. The IRS just had really bad competition. They have so much room to grow that they should feel confident in their ability to keep improving and getting the award for many more years to come.

Date Tracking Options in Office 365

This is a few days overdue and not what I was planning on typing up last weekend, but this presented itself as such a weird issue for me the other day that I needed to say something on the matter and bump it to the top of my list of topics. Folks were not using the right site for a proposal they were working on, so they told me where all of their content was for me to move into it. I set them up and realized they only had documents from a lot of different libraries but still just documents, so I followed up with an email suggesting that they create a plan in Planner connected to their O365 group or just put the dates into calendar that came with the site so they could stay on top of when things needed to be submitted. The response I got from one of the users:

 
 

I don’t have time to recreate the calendar in SharePoint…. We created the calendar in Word since we did not have time to wait for our access to SharePoint. We do not now have time to port it over to SharePoint. The calendar is in Proposal Management/Schedule.

 
 

I’m thinking to myself, “How on Earth are you managing this?” There were only 11 dates in the Word document, so I know it wasn’t really about having time to recreate this. She just was not comfortable using anything else. Then again, it isn’t the first time I’ve seen people track projects and things from Word. Maybe it is a generational thing. Maybe this is the only thing she is involved in, but I’m thinking it would be very difficult to open this document on your phone and zooming in to find what you need on page 12 one day and page 13 the next. Don’t you want all of your important things visible when you look to your calendar?

 
 

So, we have a few options for the business users out there.

 
 

Hit up the Events list on the site, fill it out, and connect it to Outlook.


Go to To Do, fill out all of the related tasks, and share (top right of the screen) the list with those involved. This is not my preference if you need to share with many other people, but it can be useful to keep track of a lot of tasks before you have dates for when they need to be done.


 
 

My personal favorite is Planner. I’ve spoken about it a few times at different user groups now. I just like the visuals and the potential that it has to become something wonderful, especially for Agile work and small team efforts. For this too, you don’t need to have dates locked in before you put in the tasks. Plus, I just learned that they just released an update allowing you to copy a plan like a template. If you work on a lot of proposals and have a lot of similar tasks to get through each time, this can save a lot of headache. You just need to click on the ellipsis…


 
 

Click on Copy plan…


 
 

And it will make the plan. The important note to take from this is that it is create a brand new site collection for each of these plans and brand new Office 365 groups. That isn’t my preference most of the time only because my preference is to always start a new plan from Teams so that I can have multiple plans without creating new Office 365 groups. Granted, if your proposal efforts usually use different people because you have different groups using it, it is very viable to do it this way instead of from Teams. I just work for a small company, and it is always the same folks who do that work.

Recruiters, Stop Sending Word Forms

Recruiters, get with the times. You are wasting far too much time copying and pasting data from Word document. Give me 10 minutes to get your life back. Let me explain. I search for all of my clients and route them back through the company where I work so I can W2. Long story short, I really don’t like to 1099 because I once had an issue getting paid, and I won’t deal with that again. On LinkedIn, when I flip my status to show that I’m looking for 1099 (that I’ll convert to corp to corp), I get a spike in recruiters where it might have been only 3-5 a week to about 5-10 a day. Many ask for additional information I guess to attach to my file they want to keep on me. Some ask for me to just send it back in an email. Some want me to fill out a “form” in Word. It isn’t really a Word form, just a document with a table.

Here is part of one I was just sent:

It isn’t hard for me to quickly fill it in, and I’m sure he wants to make it as easy as possible for candidates so that he gets a higher rate of responses, so from that aspect, it works. For you as a recruiter, however, I guess you must copy and paste pieces of this into Excel or some kind of CRM to add me to your master rolodex, what makes you valuable. I’ve done some recruiting for my company too. I know that your list of contacts and how you’ve managed those relationships continues to pay you. If you are sending me these kinds of Word documents, I guarantee you are wasting too much time copying and pasting.

Here is how you can get the data fast and easy. Moreover, it makes it really simple for these candidates to reply over their phones too. If you have Office 365, go to https://forms.office.com. You will see something similar to this:

Create New Form

Give it a good name by just clicking on Untitled form and changing it. It is up to you to add a description or not. Maybe you might want to just give the candidate a disclaimer of how you might use the data and won’t sell it to people trying to get them to buy a new warranty for their car.

Click Add question.


You get this and are able to select what kind of data gets saved. I like choices whenever you can use them because you can keep them from fat fingering data, and it helps you group sort and filter later.

You can even select Multiple answers on this in case you want to ask them something like this:

Keep hitting Add question until you have everything in there that you’d like. I added a few more here and ordered them how I wanted.

Now, at the top of the page, see where it said Preview? Click it. You will see how it will look for the people when you send them the link. But wait there is more. Look at the top right of the page. It will show you what it looks like in a mobile view. Click on that. This is how mine looks:

Pretty, right? Hit the back button there and click on Share.


It defaults to only allow people within your organization, but you can check it so that anyone with the link can respond. Then copy the link or start an email. If you want to collaborate with other people on your team to ensure the form looks just how you’d like, you can share it for that reason. Send it out. And the magic is when you get your responses. When you click on Responses tab, you will see the number of response, the average time it takes to complete, and its status. It will also allow you to open it in Excel. From there, you can copy and paste hundreds of responses into SharePoint or your CRM, or forward them to the clients you are head hunting for.

So, before your next big event, you can make one of these forms, open it up on a tablet, and let all of your booth’s visitors fill it out, or you can send it via Indeed, LinkedIn, Twitter, or email. Just let the system work for you. Do what you do best and leave the data collection up to the machines.

New Year New Blog

I’m not changing the URL or anything. I was just going through previous posts to find inspiration for something to blog about. It dawned on me that, as always, I need to post more often and that a lot of this content might feel pretty out of date for anyone using Office 365. For so much of the last 10 years that I’ve been working with SharePoint, my clients were all using on-premises versions of SharePoint, often an extra version older than they should. My last customer was still on SharePoint 2010, and they weren’t even government. My month-late New Year’s Resolution is to post something related to the newest features to Office 365 each Sunday night. Hold me to it. If you have any special requests, hit me on Twitter @SPSuperHeroes.

Sharing an O365 SharePoint Library External Anonymously

Just a quick post as a response to a question on a Facebook SharePoint group. He wanted to know, “Is it possible to embed a document library into an external web page?” Well, not exactly because we don’t do anonymous access any longer, but you can do this:

Synchronize a library with a folder in your OneDrive account.

If you click on the Synch button at the top of your library, you will get this:


Then you will see this possibly:


I had to kill my OneDrive to capture all of these screenshots for you folks reading. This is a person Business account. It isn’t Outlook.com or Hotmail.com. I own madwhitehatter.com, so I need to select Work or School.


Follow the little tutorial.


Change the permissions on the folder to allow anonymous access.


If you haven’t clicked on any files, click on Share.


I really like how you can set an expiration date, or even allow editing.

Take the code from OneDrive and put it on a page.

Click at the top where you see embed. You’ll see a little side window slide in.


Click on the Generate button. On the external page you are sharing, insert that piece of script.


Voila. You can now share externally. The key thing to remember is that if the person making that code ever leaves the organization, you are screwed. This is why I have a general admin@XYZ.onmicrosoft.com account for every O365 environment I am working with. If you are working with SharePoint 2013 or 2016, I’m sorry. I cannot confirm if the way that one could mirror a library to one’s OneDrive works the same way.

KM Failure #1: Starting New Documents from Emailed Templates

This is going to be the first of many posts on knowledge management failures I have personally noticed over the years. I’m going to point out the problems and provide suggestions on how to address them. Please provide feedback and insight if you have had any success in combating these problems or if you finally meet with success if you try one of my suggestions.

Problem

Have you ever seen someone start on a new project plan, risk management plan, memorandum, or other document by deleting content from the last document they made and giving it a new name or by searching for the organization’s template for them from their email? I have. I’ve done it myself quite a few times, so I bet you have too. I see this a lot with PowerPoint presentations as well. This is a problem because these templates change often, and people in your organization do not know always when those changes happen. I’ve seen so many people with hundreds of unread emails that it is never a surprise to me that they don’t know they received an email with new organizational templates if they were emailed to them. Most people just do not have the time to read all of communications coming down from on high, so they focus on key people who send them emails and believe they’ll eventually catch up on the rest. It is difficult at best. I have even seen people delete all of the emails they had come in while out on vacation and say that they will get a new email if it was really important.

If your staff can still get the job done with little disruption, why is this still not a good idea? Maybe you do not have a policy on the styling of documents in your organization. That is probably because efforts to standardize have been futile because everyone has his or her own two cents about how it should be and are at odds with others. In very large organizations, especially within the federal government, every head of a directorate might dictate his or her own way style—among so many other things that go contrary to higher guidance. Sometimes, that higher guidance is at odds with the rules of English even. As someone who used to teach English, you can imagine how frustrating I found making soldier a proper noun in all of my Army writing when I was active duty. In common Army writing, you might not ever see the subject in a sentence even. The first sentence will often begin, “Request units send…” Who is making this request?

It is not a good idea for your staff to start from a blank document ever. How many of your standard reports and plans have fixed sizes for tables? It would be much more painful. You might be using styles if you are lucky, but when you want to send it out for comments and changes, copying and pasting the changes back into the original could lead to weird results.

Suggestions

So what are you to do?

Use styles

What prompted me to start with this particular problem was spending a few hours helping my wife with a couple documents she was asked to markup and submit back to her office for some guides they were putting together. She is a non-native English speaker as is every other person in her office. She was given a time slot of today (a Sunday) to make her comments because they did not want collision with people saving the file while someone else was working with it. The documents were essentially 80% the same with additional pieces for different audiences. This meant that when we found a mistake in the third paragraph in one document, we had to comment the third paragraph in the other two documents. No where in the document were they using styles. If you don’t know what I mean by Styles, open MS Word and look at the ribbon. Because I chose Blog Post as my template in Word, this is what I get by default:

I always use styles. Sometimes I make my own, but sticking with the defaults in Word isn’t bad. If you have a communications office in your organization, I highly suggest that it come up with a solid group of styles that you apply for all of your documents with the right fonts. As time goes on, revisit these styles. See if there are studies suggesting that some fonts are easier to read than others. That is my subtle way of saying to stop using Times New Roman. Not only does it show that your organization hasn’t evolved since 1997, it really is hard to read when most people read their documents electronically today rather than printed. Studies show that sans serif fonts like Arial and Segoe UI are far easier on the readers’ eyes than serif fonts like Times New Roman and Gothic when reading them on screens. On printed documents, serif fonts provide some value. Scanners prefer serif fonts if you need to PDF old records for which you no longer have other digital records. Most of all, however, styles cascade. If you use numbering for your paragraphs or want certain titles to be in bold and in a larger font, realizing that pages of content should be nested under a different title could mean making dozens of changes. I found in her documents some of these changes, so I typed out a comment, copied it, and made that comment to change that one thing over and over and over again.

Make a policy you can enforce

One of the biggest problems in the government isn’t a lack of policy but the lack of enforcement. This is why so many business processes use guides rather than policies to define how the staff should comply. Nothing happens to those who go their own way, so they will continue to do it. If you are stuck in one of these situations where you wouldn’t be able to enforce the policy, make it guidance, but do every other thing you can to make it easy for users to comply with it. I’ve run into this a lot when coming up with governance for SharePoint environments. Governance needs three pillars to support it: policy, monitoring, and enforcement. If it is not feasible to check all of the pages out there to see that they use the right fonts and colors and when nothing happens to those who choose to use something outside of what you defined in the policy, it is pointless to even include it in your governance. To get people to follow the guidance, make it difficult for them to deviate from it. Make them realize they can save time and effort by going with what you just made them. It might require training your staff, but the return on investment can be worth it. How much do quality technical editors cost if they must focus on just getting everything into the right format?

Create your documents from set applications

I create a lot of things on top of Microsoft’s SharePoint platform and have for the last 10+ years. I love the application. If your SharePoint staff don’t understand what content types are, you are not getting your money’s worth. Document libraries use a default document content type. If you click New, you get a blank Word document. You can create templates of risk management plans, project plans, white papers, activity reports, etc and make your own content types. When you click New, you could get the default project plan with all of the title sections created and sample content included, or get presented with several content types to choose from. You can even use what are called Quick Parts to autofill sections of the document. One thing I’ve done successfully many times now is to create document sets that come with three or four different types of documents include in them. They are essentially pretty folders with metadata, but that metadata uses the quick parts to fill in information in the documents so that you don’t need to worry about your staff making the same updates over and over again. Changes to the metadata is reflected in all of the documents immediately. It can tag those documents with metadata that allows you to more easily find the content years later. You can even use the search to pull out every project plan with Bob Smith as the project manager between 2008 and 2016 if you wanted to have metrics for some kind of award or something.

Guess what you have there?—WIIFM… What’s in it for me? You want your user to fill out that metadata, so give them a reason that benefits them other than efficiency. Efficiency is never enough when it comes to the government. I was once building an application for an office. When I told them that it would save them enough time that they could task three people with other work, they had me stop. They don’t want anyone to lose their jobs. No one wants replaced by automation. They don’t seem to realize that there is more than enough work to fill the void with other things, but it took a few months to convince them of that.

I don’t know what antiquated system my wife was told to use, but she had to download these documents, make her comments, and upload them back. I guess that is far better than emailing documents around, but the business process there put everyone in serial rather than parallel editing mode. I am bias toward using SharePoint for a variety of reasons, but this is where it can shine best. Using SharePoint, users can get Word Online. It makes it so that several people can open the same file at the same time using Word in the browser. With paragraph locks, people can edit different sections at the same time. SharePoint even maintains version control, so you don’t end up with people naming stuff like document_SRB_Editsv5_draft_final_final-5Aug18.docx. Oh that kills me. Adding a date like that won’t help you ever search for anything, and it can be misleading when the last modified date on the document doesn’t match. The date could have multiple meanings to different people. Calling anything a draft is pretty much a given until you publish it, so that is pointless to add. Using metadata, you can make the crazy filenames you have seen irrelevant.

Lastly about these applications, don’t just make a site with a library named documents and put a few thousand documents in it. That is no way to organize content. Not to go off another tangent about information architecture, plan this out well. Keep similar content together. Project plans do not go into the same library as the office picnic flyer. Make pages on that site that will show a view that highlights the content and wraps it in context. If you want everyone to use the application to start their documents, write paragraphs to the side of the library in that defines the work process and why they need to do it how you are outlining that process. Provide help. Provide sample content of what makes good content. Provide links to your style guide and any writer references you use THAT POP UP over the page instead of redirecting them to another site in the same window.

Protect It while you Build It

A long while back I typed up a post about test environments. For the same reasons, I need to explain how you can help prevent giving yourself and your users some headaches. Another contractor working SharePoint—I’d rather not call him a SharePoint developer even though it is his title—with a client has a production version of his application on an existing 2010 farm, but it isn’t functioning yet on Office 365 because of all of his coded customization (stuff we should have done out of the box with SharePoint). People continue to hit the site and request elevated rights over the read rights they already have. If they had no rights to the site, this would not be a problem.

The permissions mess is a much longer post, but I need to explain how you build your sites and apps. I immediately remove all permissions from a site, list, or library when I create it to give me time to build it correctly before exposing it to the rest of the users. Why?—

  • People shouldn’t see anything under construction, especially when there is a production version running elsewhere. It leads to mass confusion.
  • It allows you to screw everything up without others noticing. No one knows everything when it comes to SharePoint, and you may want to try a web part you haven’t used before. Do you really want everyone else to take notice that your web parts are all funky?
  • Rarely, should you have the exact same permissions on a site, list, or library that mirror the parent exactly, so you should be breaking inheritance anyway. Like all other basic IT security rules you should know, we want to grant rights based on the on the principle of least privilege. That means that you trim away access for people who don’t need it. People could need contribute rights to all of the other lists on a site, but if their role determines they should not be adding to the list you are making, you grant only read to the role they are in.
  • It really can help with testing purposes. You might need to cycle your testing folks through different permission groups separately before you go live, and it is just way easier to kill all of the other permissions until you are ready to go.

So please just stop. Think about what you are doing. Every setting in your list should have been addressed, and you should have made a conscious decision as to how you would configure that setting before you allow anyone access.

Knowledge Curation

I was working with a group of folks the other day who wanted to redesign the site. They had a lot of ideas for one page. They had no ideas for the data that supported what they wanted to present on that page. The site collection already has very poor architecture. When one goes to the root site to the site collection, that person gets two redirections to the final page on a subsite. Whoever created it that way caused all of the lists and libraries on the root site to go untouched for about a year.

In my discussions with them, I had to give them the analogy of a kitchen remodel. One doesn’t just put in a new kitchen. You need plans. You need to do demolition work. You need to account for the electrical, gas, and plumbing that you cannot move. You also need to figure out what you are going to keep from your cabinets. They had a good 30 or more lists and libraries that hadn’t been touched. I’m not going to just leave those defunct lists and libraries there. A new page would be a mere façade over a weak structure.

Over the coming weeks, they are to look at the existing content and identify what they are going to keep and what they want to kill. This is always the first step in redesign work with SharePoint: Knowledge Curation. It could be information curation, but we need to identify why and they are vetting the value of the information, so I elevate this to knowledge. They aren’t just checking to see if something is properly tagged. They are doing more than content management, and it is grunt work because no one had previously built the tools for them to sift through it more easily.  To learn more about knowledge curation, here is an article I looked up from KM World.

The next step will be to identify the data definitions of those things they would like to present on the page like pictures on a carousel. I’d rather them not need to do a lot of work to keep their content there, so they need to identify what determines whether or not a picture will be displayed, how they want to add a new picture, if they link, etc.

We will go about creating their content management plan and will have a section for knowledge curation. It should be a continuous process, not something you do once a year. It is like brushing your teeth daily versus getting a scaling once a year by your dentist because the plaque looks like you have fused your teeth together. At some point, your dentist will recommend pulling your teeth and getting you dentures. This is why you see so many people start over with SharePoint sites. They neglect them for so long, they would rather just build a new one. It takes discipline, and it takes a plan.

Scott Brewster works for Data Analytics Solutions. He is got his Certified Knowledge Manager (CKM) credentials through the Knowledge Management Institute (KMI), and he has been working on both the farm administration and front end solution architecture of SharePoint since 2008.

The Importance of User Groups

Just wanted to say a few things about why I harp on getting people to attend the user groups. Microsoft leads in the enterprise primarily because there are many more trained and qualified technicians with lots of reachback into blogs and documentation who work on the Microsoft stack than there are with niche Linux distributions. It helps Microsoft’s business to push Channel 9 and other things because this free training helps to evangelize those who use it to recommend additional Microsoft products and the ones in which they already specialize.

For the same reason, not only is it in Microsoft’s interest for you to have your user group to share knowledge, but it helps you as well. As SharePoint becomes more in demand because you and the others who attend push for its use in the enterprise, you become more valuable as one of the few who have the knowledge and experience that you have built yourself but the knowledge others have shared with you. It makes you stand out from those who have not been learning from and sharing with their peers. The user groups you attend become hubs of knowledge that help you gain knowledge, but when you get ready to share, you also tend to learn more about the subject so that you can be the authoritative source when you present to your peers. It makes us all better.

Hoarding knowledge does not improve job security, but a great many people tend to think it will. The truth is that you will be known as a thought leader in the material the more you share. That makes you stand out as the subject matter expert you become when you are active in your user groups.

I stress to you that, even if the topic of the night falls outside of your role when it comes to SharePoint, you should attend all of the meetings you can. It strengthens the group because a group really is more than the sum of its members. It helps you network. You might not be actively be seeking new work, but opportunities pop up in odd places. You will learn that someone new to the group is having an issue that you or your company is uniquely suited to tackle, and you can help grow your company and become more valuable within it.

While this post has focused on SharePoint user groups, it applies to all user groups, communities of interest/practice, and professional associations. A lot of SharePoint Saturday conferences have lost a lot in the way of sponsorship dollars over the years, and these events are where some of the best in the industry get together to share their knowledge with you for FREE. Speaking obviously helps their resume and helps to get their company’s name out there, but you should rarely avoid free knowledge. You might think you know it all, but that speaker might share one little tidbit that will change how you do everything and could make you so much better at your role. Go to your groups. Evangelize SharePoint or whatever product/platform/practice you use. Stand out among your peers.