Bridging the gap between the users and IT

User Managed Solutions LogoHappy New Year 2012!

I discovered SharePoint 8 years ago, and I was immediately fascinated by the opportunities it offered. Being a functional consultant, I have always been on the user side, in “hosted” environments, where traditionally you have limited options to tweak applications. SharePoint was a game changer. The CEWP (Content Editor Web Part) and the DVWP (Data View Web Part) quickly became my best digital friends. It is at that time that I started using JavaScript, building my first user solutions like tabbed interfaces and list driven menus.

In 2008, I started this blog to share some of the techniques I had created. Overnight, they became popular and were relayed by bloggers around the world, including Mark Miller, the SharePoint End User Authority.

Then came 2010, and the release of a new SharePoint version, with a major innovation: sandboxed solutions. People now had a solid way to push packaged solutions from the SharePoint user interface.

My initial though was that it was the beginning of the end for the CEWP. Well, obviously I had missed the point. Sure, people liked what my solutions accomplished, easily adding tabs to a page or color coding to a calendar. But what they liked even more was the hands-on experience. With a CEWP and code accessible in a document library, the user was in control. Even better, because my solutions were closely tied to out of the box features, they helped the user understand SharePoint itself – page layouts, calculated columns, or workflows. It was not just about using, it was also about building and learning. The solutions didn’t just improve the site. They helped the user improve his/her own skills.

So here I start 2012, with my solutions still very much alive, and so popular that I plan to expand them, and adopt a more sustainable and professional approach. There are in particular two directions I want to explore.

With SharePoint pros, I plan to adopt a more structured approach, providing them with both a methodology and modules to embed in their own solutions, in the spirit of a Lego set. I see this as a highly interactive process, where the modules I’ll push will be based on the needs and feedback I collect. Flexibility is key here.

With end users, I believe that a little guidance can go a long way. Of course it might be hard to picture users digging into client side code today… well, just like 20 years ago it was hard to imagine users editing Web pages or building automated workflows. One step at a time. For example this year I’ll push in my samples more JSON, a JavaScript notation that is considered almost humane. Could the user and the computer share the same interpretation of {flag:”red”} ? This is definitely something I’ll experiment with this year!

How does this look from the IT side? Honestly, I didn’t even ask, as I am certain IT pros are not too excited about these user driven initiatives. And to be fair I can understand why. I am not the only one to have witnessed the flood of undocumented Excel macros in corporate environments, isn’t history just repeating itself? So here is another important point: these user solutions have to be managed. Only by maintaining a clean and sustainable environment the users will gain long term benefits, and gain the trust of IT. Here too I plan to provide guidance, for example by introducing risk management to help the user understand the implications of his/her customizations.

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future (*). I am starting 2012 with ambitious objectives, we’ll see where we stand in a couple months!

(*) Niels Bohr, Physicist