Focus on the Last Mile of SharePoint Automation

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.

Design for User Productivity

Deploying SharePoint with the end user experience in mind sounds obvious, but many organizations tend to build and deploy solutions to satisfy business requirements -- and forget user acceptance testing. The key to productivity is to balance business process alignment (ensuring your business requirements are being met) with end user acceptance (ensuring your users are happy and trained). There are no hard-and-fast rules or best practices that fit every situation when building out a SharePoint solution, but experience has shown a number of commonalities across customer deployments.

Looking again at the expense report example, here are four best practices for designing SharePoint solutions with the goal of improving end user productivity:

  • Provide feedback loops. Always ask for feedback before building, while you are building (assuming you are also testing and capturing feedback during testing), and after deploying. If end users have a means for providing feedback, and have some visibility into the changes being made based on that feedback, you’ll not only improve the performance of the tool or solution -- you will improve adoption and engagement on the overall platform. When people feel they are part of the process, they are more likely to participate in that process.
  • Focus on taxonomy. Everything in SharePoint revolves around metadata, so naturally developing an effective and efficient expense reporting solution requires you to have a strong metadata strategy so that end users can easily classify (and later retrieve) their assets. The goal is to automate as much as possible rather than require your end users to manually tag (index) all of their content as it is uploaded into SharePoint. One option is to utilize OCR (optical character recognition) to help improve automation, and reduce the chance of human error in processing.
  • Iterate your content types. While an expense report is a fairly simple example, some complexity will exist behind any solution you provide. Different teams and roles might have varying rules applied to similar expense categories (meal expenses for users in a sales organization may have a higher amount and a different approval method from someone in marketing, for example). Refining the expense report content type is an ongoing, iterative process as you learn from end user activities and make adjustments to characteristics such as your approval workflows, information management policies and retention schedules.
  • Focus on the user interface. Of course, it goes without saying that the user interface can have a direct impact on the user experience. Define the points at which you plan to capture data (mobile, paper, email, file shares, etc.) and then design the user experience for each channel. Whenever possible, auto-classify against your predefined taxonomy and term store, simplifying the actions the end user must complete to create and submit their expenses.

The expense report example is just one of many solutions that can be automated within SharePoint, improving end user productivity. The possibilities are endless -- from contract negotiations to claim reports and from company profile management in HR to work activity updates in the Project Management Office. SharePoint can be a powerful platform, if deployed thoughtfully and with the end user in mind, helping your organization to meet your business requirements -- allowing you to increase speed, reduce cost and improve quality.

Title image by donvictorio (Flickr)