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Focus on the Last Mile of SharePoint Automation

2014-30-July-Long-Road.jpgThe rise of social and collaborative networks has changed the nature of the business interaction. The inbox and the Rolodex have become foreign to us. We expect instant access, constant updates and alerts, and data about every aspect of our lives to be readily available. We expect common business activities to be automated, streamlined, easy. Many of our measurements for success in business (certainly from the information worker's standpoint) revolve around the quality of the user experience we receive — or create for our customers.  

When surrounded by a team of people, it is easy enough get the necessary help from others to work through a complex or confusing business process. However, as an employee in a remote office, most of your daily information worker activities are likely self-driven. Many of the interactions that require involvement from others, who may be located in another time zone, can take time and reduce your productivity while you are waiting. Suddenly it is not just about identifying the right person for an approval or feedback but about balancing their availability against your project and time constraints.

We constantly strive to increase speed, reduce cost and improve quality. Our everyday tasks are rife with opportunities for improving productivity. From the perspective of the overly-connected, always-online, digitally-overstimulated information worker, the user experience is impacted by every additional click or swipe you need to make, the metadata fields you need to apply, the drop down menus you need to select from and the time it takes from "Send" or "Submit" until someone on the other end responds.

Designing for the 'Last Mile'

Within the telecommunications space, the “last mile" is a metaphorical phrase used to describe the final leg of the telecom network where the customer physically connects to the network. For example, you might have a fiber network that serves your area, and yet it still connects your home to that fiber network (from your home to the street) using copper wire, thus degrading your service due to the quality of that “last mile” of infrastructure.

Most problems with service that consumers experience tend to happen within that last mile. This usually is because the customer's layout, the quality of connection and the type of equipment being used can vary so widely. The telecom vendor might build the most advanced network possible, but that last mile can make or break the experience.

How much of your SharePoint environment has been designed for that last mile? In other words, how much has been designed for the end user experience rather than just to meet your functional requirements? Much has been written about workflow and business process automation, but there is still plenty of opportunity to improve around the human element of these business processes.

SharePoint provides a powerful platform from within which your team can collaborate, either synchronously, in real time — such as when jointly authoring or editing a document while on a conference call or in a web meeting — or asynchronously, such as when we participate in a workflow activity. But what is the "last mile" experience leading up to that workflow?

Closing the Gaps in a Routine Task

Think about something as common as monthly expense reporting. For me, it is more frequent than monthly, as travel is a huge component of my role. Automation of the activity through a SharePoint workflow is straightforward enough, but by focusing on the extended user experience — from expense creation and capture through the delivery of my reimbursement, there are at least four key areas where productivity can be improved:

  1. Capture. There are several ways the expense report or each expense line item can be created and then captured within SharePoint, from paper-based to entirely digital, with a quick mobile scan of the form — or just the receipts. A best practice is to begin by understanding how your end users accomplish the task today, and look for ways to improve upon common business practices rather than introduce an entirely new way of doing things.
  2. Metadata. While some manual indexing is expected (such as the expense type), automating the classification and indexing of expenses is one of the best ways to improve productivity for your end users. Depending on your capture method, the use of OCR (optical character recognition) software can automate much of the indexing burden for your end users. Regardless of the level of automation, proactively managing your taxonomy should be a priority.
  3. Workflow. The number one productivity enhancing method for SharePoint is the use of workflow, whether built out-of-the-box or through third-party software. Whenever you find routine activities, such as expense report approvals, there is an opportunity to streamline through the use of workflow. Even detailed, complex business processes can be simplified and optimized, allowing the end user to focus on other business priorities.
  4. Reporting. Providing status updates, alerts and business intelligence around expenses is a great opportunity for improving the user experience, and improving fiscal awareness, in general.

With the ongoing success and maturity of the SharePoint platform, and as more and more organizations move common business activities like expense reporting into digital format, the need for capture solutions and automation of these assets remains a top concern for most enterprises. Together with targeted workflow solutions, these are fundamental “last mile” activities that can positively impact the end user experience, improving adoption and engagement within SharePoint.


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