Workflow and Fika: SharePoint Observations from Sweden

Greetings from Sweden. It’s 4:00 P.M., so of course it’s already dark—the sun set an hour ago. It’s cold (but nowhere near as bone chilling as this time last year). But the thing about Sweden is they know how to use light. Despite the darkness, the city shimmers in light. Candles, beautiful interior and exterior lighting everywhere. So, to steal an album title, it’s "Shimmering, Warm and Bright."

Holme 11-16-11 Sweden market at night_0

In this week’s column, I want to share thoughts about the events of the week; a couple of observations and tips about SharePoint workflows; and a "soft side" note about my favorite Swedish tradition: fika.

On the Road

Earlier this week, SEF 2011 took place at the beautiful Clarion Hotel. Several hundred Swedes and folks from around the world came together to discuss SharePoint and Exchange in a first-class event produced by Göran Husman and his team at HumanData.

More than a dozen speakers traveled from all reaches to this northern capital. Many of the speakers had just presented at SharePoint Saturday UK in Nottingham a few days earlier—an event that by all accounts was also a smashing success.

Personally, I really enjoyed spending time with attendees and with several experts, like Mirjam van Olst, Steve Smith, Todd Klindt, and CA Callahan, with whom I never get to spend enough time. Unfortunately, I did not get to spend enough time with Eric Shupps, Scott Scholl, Wictor Wilén, Spence Harbar, Christian Ståhl, Marc Anderson, Niklas Goude, Penny Coventry, Staffan Söderholm, or the very elusive Paul Swider.

Because this is the last conference of the 2011 season for many of us, I won’t get to see my colleagues again until the end of February, at the MVP Summit, and the kick-off of the 2012 conference season.

At SEF 2011, I delivered the latest and greatest versions of my Governance and Architecture session, and my SharePoint Demystified session. I have a terrible habit of constantly revising (and hopefully improving) my talks—I am never satisfied! So while it was a lot of work, I think the results were good!

I also filled in for a speaker who cancelled, and brushed off my information worker session on integrating SharePoint with Excel and Access. Even with no time to revise the talk or practice the demos, it went fairly well, and I enjoyed elevating my talk up to the business value level!

Today I presented a full day workshop to more than a dozen delegates from enterprise and government organizations. Tomorrow, it’s the same thing—for half a day—with the SharePoint team of a major Swedish enterprise. Then it’s off to Amsterdam. On Monday, a workshop at the Microsoft offices (which I hear are glorious and second to none).

Finally, then, it’s SharePoint Connections Amsterdam, where I will deliver a new keynote address and three sessions. Flying back to the USA on Wednesday, for Thanksgiving with my family, I will indeed be thankful for these busy and rewarding weeks in northern Europe.

Workflows

At one of Todd Klindt’s sessions, Todd shared his insight into SQL Server administration and optimization. One of the things he pointed out was that several tables tend to get very large and drive the total size of SharePoint content databases. One of those tables is the workflow history table. If you have a lot of workflow activity, this table can get quite large, indeed.

An attendee asked about cleaning up this table. This is a question I haven’t explored for a long time!

A timer job runs daily to clean up workflows. It removes the association between an item and any workflow that is more than 60 days old. But, according to an authoritative blog entry on MSDN, the timer job still does not actually remove records from the workflow history table itself! So the table can, theoretically, grow infinitely. What experience have you had with this? (email me at [email protected])

Tim Mayo posted a code sample to MSDN that can be used to actually delete workflow history.

Another note about workflows: be sure to check out what third-party tools do! K2 and Nintex are the big players in the space—and there are others as well. By knowing what third parties do, it will help you understand the limitations of out-of-box features.

Typically, the third party ISVs don’t replicate what SharePoint does, they extend it. So you can identify the "boundaries" of out-of-box functionality by seeing what the ISVs do! They’re both great companies with great products.

As an analyst, I have to say that Nintex is a fascinating company to watch—not just for workflows, but because I believe they are at the leading edge of the space. They "get" the cloud and the relationships between SharePoint, Azure, mobile devices, and services like Office 365 perhaps better than anyone. I’m really impressed with their vision and direction, and I’ve been lucky enough to have Mike Fitzmaurice sit me down and show me some of the wickedly cool things they’re doing with both the cloud and mobile devices.

Finally, be very wary of build-your-own-workflow approaches. While you can build workflows with Visual Studio and Windows Workflow Foundation, be aware of total cost of ownership. As Adam—a consultant—so precisely described to me today, if a workflow is going to cost you $10,000 to develop yourself, it will cost three times that over its lifetime with patches, modifications, and upgrades.

Third-party workflow tools like K2, Nintex, and others, are something that—in my opinion—become a “no brainer” as organizations scale their business process automation with SharePoint. They allow you to automate business processes with workflows that you assemble rather than code yourself.

Fika

Finally, a call out to my favorite Swedish tradition: Fika.

Yes, I love a sauna on a cold winter day—but not so much the idea of following that up with a jump into an icy pond. But every day is fika day. Fika has no direct translation to English, but it basically is a coffee break. But it’s more than that. It’s a lifestyle… a culture. It’s a time when everyone from an organization stops working and sips coffee, eats a little sandwich or pastry, and takes a break.

How incredibly productive I’ve found this very social activity to be. People release their minds from the task at hand and creative ideas flow. People stop emailing and texting and actually talk to each other, and great things get done. And there’s always a morale boost just before, during, and leading out of fika.

People are happier. Nothing like caffeine, sugar, and some real social networking to bring a smile to the face. So as we all look to SharePoint to improve productivity, speed up business processes, and build social networks… don’t forget that the real point is to share, and a few minutes together as human beings can be infinitely higher value than any technology solution.

So, as I sip my own delicious café latte and get ready to head off to take a beer with friends from SpecOps [thank god there’s not an evening of karaoke and beer at Howl at the Moon ahead!]… a hearty HEJ DÅ from the shimmering, warm and bright town of Stockholm!

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