Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SharePoint workflow automation

Here's a 7-min video that acts as a memory-jogger for a customer with whom we were setting up a little workflow operation to send an email summary to the Branch Manager whenever an Inspector saves a new report item to the Inspections List on their SharePoint site.

In practice, each of the inspections is carried out by the Inspector using a custom-built form on an iPad using the StarfishCI app available from the App Store here. The inspection is done on the iPad; the data gets saved automatically to SharePoint, over the air; then SharePoint starts to carry out workflow - sending summaries, escalation emails based on certain values, and more...

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Business automation with SharePoint

It was super to get customer feedback yesterday that @StarfishCI is already helping them to work faster and better; now we're taking it to the next stage...

The client has begun to replace paper on clipboards with electronic forms on iPads: already, the data gets captured straight from the iPad and stored safely and securely in the central database, run by Microsoft SharePoint, and with no costs of keying the data in, or correcting errors!
Workflow automatation with Microsoft SharePoint Designer
Microsoft SharePoint Designer workflow rules
Now, though, we've introduced some business rules: as soon as a new 'Contract Visit' inspection is carried out and reported via the iPad form, it is automatically
  1. Filed - so that everyone can lay their hands on the results immediately, from any computer
  2. Reported to the Branch Manager and the Inspector, in summary form.
  3. Acknowledged back to the end-user customer: no longer does the Inspector have to leave behind a carbonless copy, the customer will get a courtesy email. There's no admin time in making this happen, because SharePoint takes care of it; and reflecting the 'contract compliance' score back to the customer acts as an audit trail to keep the Inspector honest!
  4. If 'Contract Compliance' falls below an agreed level then SharePoint will automatically generate an alert email to go to the appropriate individuals in the management chain: they can get all of the information they need, right there in an email to their mobile device, and they can take action at once, without waiting for a paper form to find its way back to the office and through the system before they become aware of a problem.
Similarly, whenever a field worker fills out a request for new stock items on their iPad form, the resulting order is picked up by SharePoint and can be automatically routed to the right person.

And that's just the start!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Balancing productivity gains

The technology is simply great at letting ordinary mortals do things that just a little while ago would have taken a whole army of specialists. Take a look at this 1-min video showing off the GPS Locator tool from the StarfishCI app.

Previously we'd have needed to bring in a specialist company; but now with a bit of software and a good video camera, tripod and some other bits, we can produce the whole thing in-house.

See other videos at our YouTube channel

That saves us heaps of time; and quite a lot of cash; and gives us the flexibility to experiment with content and get things just as we want them, without running up a bill with a team that's on the meter.

And the results? Good enough - Absolutely not as good as the professionals would do; but good enough for this stage of things.

However, the down-side to all this astonishing productivity is the sheer range of skills that one has to pick up, fast: It's amazing to me how much there is to get right: lighting, sound levels, camera angles, script, content, file format conversion from Sony camera ultimately to mp4, editing, mixing the audio backing track, getting sound levels for that right, adding captions, titles, closed captioning, uploading to YouTube, keywords ... on and on!!

Not many people can work effectively across each of these disciplines; and there's a huge amount of trial and error involved in the learning process.

So the trade-off is time and there is a huge, hidden, cost associated with these productivity tools; fortunately masked by the fact that, mostly, this is fun - when I'm working to my schedules and not someone else's!
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Adding a Button to save data to SharePoint

This is the first in our mini-series looking briefly at the StarfishCI Toolbox controls. This video features the last control on the right hand side, the Button, which is used to allow the user to save data in the form, firstly to the iPad and then to Microsoft SharePoint.

Other brief videos will follow in the next few days; each looking at other controls.

Monday, February 18, 2013

iPad for business - move ahead of the competition

With HMRC announcing its purchase of up to 7,000 iPads it’s clear that Apple’s device is meeting the needs of business, not just web-surfing domestic users. More proof comes with the announcement that Barclays Bank is buying 8,500 iPads and Coca Cola some 120k: Apple claims the whole Fortune 500 has some iPad use!

Yet a door-to-door survey of Cheltenham estate agents is typical. It shows that a third of them haven’t even given tablets a thought; another third are thinking they’ll do something, one day; and the remainder are already ahead of the game, actively trialling use. 

This last group is pretty much just using it for mobile access to property details on their web site, with a bit of email, calendars and maybe Apple’s excellent software Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet) or Keynote (presentations).

Personally, I love to use a drawing app like SketchBookX instead of pen and paper: great for a ‘pencil sell’ and, with the iPad projected on to a screen, it’s better than flip chart or whiteboard! Better still, with a bit of preparation, I can have all my documents as PDFs on the iPad, reducing the clutter I carry around to meetings.

Without doubt, those are the basic workhorse apps. But savvy users can do more.  The key to outwitting competitors comes from finding niche use specific to your business. Something that will cut costs, increase revenue or raise competitive edge
  • Start by searching the App Store with keywords for your industry; or your business need.
  • Then browse the App Store, especially the Business and Productivity categories: this is the best way to stumble upon ideas you can learn from. (Take the time to scroll well past the first page of top hits!)
  • Ask questions in the iPad for Business group on LinkedIn.
  • Read blogs and search Google (Try searching for the name of your competitors, along with ‘iPad!’)
Then, there’s the option to roll-your-own, and link in with your existing business systems. For example, @StarfishCI allows any one to create an iPad replacement for a paper-based form with the ease of drag and drop. You can replace paper on a clipboard in minutes, and have your data link straight to the commonly-used Microsoft SharePoint database, for example.

Something like this can save you significant time, while reducing the costs of entering data and improving your speed and accuracy.  All this helps you do more with less; and with the iPad Mini starting at just £269 inc. VAT, these projects can be really easy to cost-justify, with a measurable positive return within months.

One company claims savings of a half an hour per person per week now they've moved from clipboards to tablets: with 16 workers, that translates to a full day's time saving each week, or approximately £20k saving per year. In addition, the've got better / faster / cheaper / more accurate data entry, and increased competitive edge.
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Thursday, February 14, 2013

My top iPad apps

I've been asked to write an article for a business publication on the use of iPads in business. As part of that I began reflecting on my top use for the iPad:
  • Top of the list has to be web surfing, along with email and calendars
  • Then there's Apple’s excellent software Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet) or Keynote (presentations).
  • Personally, I love to use a drawing app like SketchBookX instead of pen and paper: great for a ‘pencil sell’ and, with the iPad projected on to a screen, it’s better than flip chart or whiteboard!
  • Better still, with a bit of preparation, I can have all my documents as PDFs on the iPad, reducing the clutter I carry around to meetings.
But, these are all generic, basic workhorse apps, even if they are ones I use throughout each day.

As you'd expect, I firmly believe in the power of @StarfishCI to let users build iPad replacements for paper-based forms with the ease of drag and drop, sending their data to their own Microsoft SharePoint or similar database. 

It's innovations like this that can drive down costs and increase competitive edge; and steal a march on the competition.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

To the forensic engineer: Yes, it was done in one 'take'...

Amazing what engineers spot: today I was told I was 'brave' to use the candles in the video we produced the other week.

I was talking with an engineer and he explained that he'd wondered how I'd replaced the candles in the video to make it look like a consistent burn with no time gaps. Extraordinary!

The answer is that it was done in one 'take' - no gaps or pauses in the shooting of the video so the candles were genuinely burning all in one consistent period.

I guess this is the sort of forensic evaluation that I should be used to after a TV diet of CSI and similar!
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Friday, February 8, 2013

The IT pendulum swing; the laws of economics

OK, I'm 'old' - old enough to have been in the IT industry since before my employer IBM launched the PC. But that gives me a useful perspective on what's going on.

It's a pendulum swing. Let me explain:

  • There's this principle known as Moore's Law which, simply put, means that each year we get more for less, in computing terms. Power and capacity grow consistently; while the costs of achieving it fall.
  • Then, there's a force of basic economics which means that the price a business can charge essentially falls to the cost of delivering the service. ('Marginal cost' economics)
  • Combine that with the blinkered, short-term quarterly results perspective of the stock exchanges and there's an inevitable conclusion...
The only way publicly-listed IT companies can maintain their share price and stock exchange expectations in the face of falling revenues for selling the same goods is to cause consumers to want ('need') to buy new goods that can be sold at a premium margin.

The result is that the IT industry has sold dumb terminals connected to mainframes; then mini-computers; then PCs; then PCs connected to LAN-based servers; then laptops; then Internet-connected laptops; now tablets... And cloud computing, which essentially treats PCs and tablets as dumb terminals connected to cloud-based 'mainframes' for data storage and processing! (To show the full-circle travel succinctly I've missed out a few nuances.)

Each of these has been some sort of step forward; but each transition has been marked by a bad-mouthing, pushing into obsolescence the technology that went before. The driver is not so much technology as economics and the need to fulfil the expectations of stock analysts for ever-growing revenues.

Expect cloud computing to remain as the hot topic for a while longer; but know it's not 'the end' and something else will be sold soon.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Domain name debate (brand protection) - http://Starfish.CI

We took the opportunity to buy a new domain name, Starfish.CI, mostly because we could, and because we want to be able to protect the brand.

At the moment, Starfish.CI simply points to our existing StarfishCI.com site. When it rises to the top of the to-do list, we know we need to do a major overhaul of the site; at present we're mostly re-directing to the sub-domain blog.StarfishCI.com with some moderately ugly content - our budget is targeted elsewhere right now!

But, we're wondering whether we can and should do something more creative with Starfish.CI - What?

As Dave Boon said on LinkedIn, the .com is well-recognised internationally and establishes our presence in each market. The .ci (Ivory Coast) is expensive as a top-level country name, but it is rather cool to have to re-inforce our company name and brand. My question is whether it can be more than this?
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Friday, February 1, 2013

Video of Starfish CI iPad electronic forms

This brief video shows how easy and fast it is to create an iPad replacement for a paper form, just by dragging and dropping fields off a Toolbox and on to the iPad 'page'. The data goes straight from there to a Microsoft SharePoint or similar database and we never see your data.

More than this, the iPad form can combine GPS location information with the date and time, even a signature or a photograph with hand-drawn annotations on it.

All in all, it's a great way to save cost and time, improve speed and accuracy and reduce errors while gaining a competitive edge.
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