I’ve been using computers for more than 35 years now. Many years ago I started with a ZX-81 and occupied my family’s TV for hours, because this computer needed to be attached to a TV rather than a monitor. Since that time a lot has changed and I can still remember the moment when I started to use Microsoft Word to create documents during my study. If you remember these times as well, you will know what this post is all about.
Try to think back on how you used your client applications like Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel years ago. Most of us usually started the client application (which took some time as personal computers weren’t as powerful as they are today), clicked on ‘Open’ or used the assigned keyboard shortcut to open a file. We usually started the client application first and then opened the document that we wanted to edit by using the file dialog of the application. That’s what I call an application-centric way of working. Our focus has been on the client application predominantly. When we thought about editing a document, we usually thought about the client application that we needed to get the job done first. We used to have a different client application for every type of document that we wanted to be able to edit.
Same is true for communicating with clients or colleagues. We still think on Microsoft Outlook first when we intend to send an email. Even if we are currently using a client application to edit a document, we think about another client application, when we need to send an email to a colleague in regards to the document we are currently editing. We are used to thinking about the tools that we need to get a task done and in IT business these tools have been our client applications.
But the world has been evolving while we were working like this. Now that we are accustomed to our beloved application-centric way of working, the IT business has changed dramatically and that change has a remarkable impact on our tools and the way we work with them. The days of a single application for each type of document is gone forever. We are getting used to working in teams and we are getting used to thinking in terms of projects as well. We are getting used to collaboration, which currently is turning to ‘Social Collaboration’ as its next step of evolution. Modern platforms like Microsoft SharePoint provide elements that allow us to easily setup environments in which we can collaborate. Usually called ‘Project Sites’ or ‘Team Sites’, collaboration elements have a massive impact on the way we are dealing with documents or data. Although we can still start our beloved client applications and use the file dialog to navigate to the SharePoint library where documents are now stored, this way has become cumbersome and ineffective, and in my opinion very “old-school”. Collaboration is changing our old application-centric way of working to a context-oriented way of working.
What does that mean – a context oriented way of working?
To answer that question, let’s have a look at the common elements a Project Site or Team Site is supposed to provide. Usually Team Sites or Project Sites provide elements to save documents to, they provide elements to store lists of data (like contacts or appointments) and they provide elements that we use to quickly chat with colleagues to exchange information in an informal way. In other words: they provide all the tools that are needed to collaborate on a project. Often they even provide tools that we can use to create or edit most kinds of documents. As modern Project Sites or Team Sites ideally provide all the tools we need to get our job done, the need to keep our beloved client applications becomes more and more insignificant and with this our accustomed application-centric way of working becomes insignificant as well. In a collaborative environment there should be no need to explicitly pick a client-application to be able to edit a document nor to edit data. Instead each team member should be able to stay in the context of the current project or the current team for as long as it takes to get the job done. The ideal Team Site or Project Site supports this context-centric way of working by providing all tools that are needed.
Our task is still “Work on the technical documentation for project XYZ”, but with a context-oriented way of working we now navigate to the Team Site or Project Site first and simply click on the document or data that we want to work on. Because the Team Site or the Project Site usually provides all the tools we need, we don’t have to worry about applications anymore. We now focus on the context (our current task) and don’t care about the application (our tool) that we need to work on this task.
I admit, this is a simple example, but let’s think a little bit further. If we need additional information from one of our colleagues, in a context-centric way of working we just use the chat element that the Team Room or Project Site provides to contact a colleague. In an application-centric way of working we would probably switch applications – maybe from Microsoft Word to Microsoft Outlook. This switch of application is also switching our context and we might even get sidetracked by quickly looking at other emails in our inbox as well – even if they are related to another topic!
We can even think a little bit further. Modern Team Sites or Project Sites sometimes provide additional tools as well. I’ve seen Team Sites that provide elements to lookup technical or engineering standards, tax calculators or even complex business applications. Modern Team Sites or Project Sites provide these additional tools to enable users to stay within the context while they are collaborating with a team or working on a project. Switching applications usually means a switch of context which usually makes us work less effective. The best way to make us work effectively is to provide a context that we can stay within while we are working on a specific task.
Based on my long-term experience as SharePoint Consultant the best way to ensure effective collaboration is to provide Team Sites or Project Sites, that include all the elements team members or project members need to work and to avoid context switches or even application switches.
Sounds reasonable – but isn’t that too complex to maintain?
I don’t think so! Teams usually know best what they really need in order to work effectively. It takes some evaluation and requirements analysis in the beginning, but after this has been done, templates for Team Rooms or Project Sites can be implemented and used to create Team Rooms or Project Sites. The effort that needs to be invested in requirements analysis and template implementation will be balanced by an increase in productivity very quickly. I have accompanied some clients from requirements analysis to template implementation and although a context centric way of working has been new for most of the employees, they adopted the new Team Sites or Project Sites and the new way of working very quickly. Of course a well-planned training did foster the adoption significantly.
Now that we came to that point of our thought experiment, why not take it a step further? A context-centric way of working has another advantage that is worth consideration although it might not be an obvious advantage. Recently I spoke on ways to improve the mobile user experience of SharePoint at an event that we at Softlanding organized. Mobile devices are more and more becoming an important part of our daily business. Think about yourself: are you using a mobile device to access company resources? Have you ever reviewed a document using a mobile device (like a tablet) while on the go? When using a mobile device to access company resources, you almost automatically switch to a context-centric way of working. You usually enter the Team Site or Project Site first, before you attend a chat, check reports or access a document. Although there are apps for mobile devices, they are mostly intended to provide offline capabilities for some types of documents. In an ideal Team Site or Project Site, even mobile devices should be able to use all the tools that the Team Site or the Project Site provides. In other words: by providing all necessary tools, even mobile devices (regardless of their operating system) can be used to collaborate without any restrictions. In my opinion Team Sitess and Project Sites need to provide a working environment that supports all kinds of devices without restrictions. Only then a seamless integration of mobile devices into business processes can be accomplished. Mobile devices are starting to replace fixed desktop computers and according to latest numbers they have outnumbered them already. If you are currently working on the implementation of Team Sites or Projects Sites, it would be a wise conclusion to make them mobile-ready.
A context-centric way of working does also affect data integrity, security and governance. Let’s have a concluding look on some important benefits for enterprises. If a Team Room or a Project Site is supporting a context-centric way of working by providing all necessary tools, project-related or team-related data usually stays within the context as well.
What does that mean exactly? Why is that important for enterprises?
Let me give you a simple example to illustrate that. If a team is using Microsoft Outlook to communicate, the team’s communication is stored outside of the Team Site and outside of the context that this communication belongs too. Emails and answers are stored in local accounts of the users. Even after a short period of time the context of a single communication thread gets lost and can’t be assigned to a topic of a team anymore. When thinking of data integrity, security and governance it is much better to keep data that directly belongs to a team or a project in the Team Site or the Project Site. Doing so, closed projects can be archived very easily without losing important data. In fact, Team Sites and Project Sites can be ‘frozen’ before they are being archived and even years later they allow to reproduce any decision that had been taken by a team. And what is true for communication threads is also true for any kind of team-related or project-related data. In a nutshell: Team Sites and Project Sites not only should provide all work-related tools, but also every kind of information that is directly related to the team or the project should be saved internally as well. Improving the effectiveness of teams and projects is an important goal of a context-centric way of working, but enhanced data integrity, security and governance is an important goal as well and enterprises usually strive hard to achieve that.
Modern intranet platforms like SharePoint provide most of the elements that are needed to create context-centric Team Sites and Project Sites out-of-the-box. Additional tools can be added by using the SharePoint add-in model in a future-proof and reusable way. The first step to move towards a context-centric way of working in your enterprise is to know about the requirements of your teams and simply start working with them on Project Site templates or Team Site templates that truly match their requirements.