Archive for August, 2014

The SCCM 2012/R2 Application Catalog provides a request/approval capability to facilitate the distribution of applications that require approval due to licensing cost or other reasons.  Unfortunately, this function is only exposed within the SCCM console and does not provide any notification capability for pending approvals. As a result, widespread use of approvals within an organization can be challenging to implement as IT team members responsible for SCCM, who are already overloaded in many cases, are required to regularly check the console to provide reasonable turnaround on requests and must do the research themselves to determine if the request should be approved or denied.

Luckily there is a solution to this problem that is not only simple to implement, quite flexible but also free. The solution is provided by Coretech, a respected System Center solution provider based in Denmark. We have successfully used Coretech’s Application Email Approval Tool in multiple environments to provide email notification for pending and completed requests as well as provide a flexible framework to manage the approval or denial of the request.

The solution, available here: http://blog.coretech.dk/kea/coretech-application-e-mail-approval-tool/, is typically installed directly on a primary site server and has not been seen to cause any conflict with normal primary site server operations.  Note that it can be installed on a dedicated server which does require a more complex security configuration.

The article linked above describes the installation and testing process as well the ways to use it in a way that suits the specific environment. While it does not cover every conceivable scenario, it can handle several core scenarios and use cases quite well:

  • Notification for pending approvals – the most basic scenario allows IT departments to designate individuals responsible for application approvals and use the CoreTech tool to provide notification to those individuals.
  • Manager approval – another common scenario which distributes the approvals throughout the organization to the person most qualified to determine what a user requires and also responsible for the cost of licenses used by their group – the user’s direct manager (as defined in Active Directory).
  • Purchasing agent approval – in many organizations, the only required approval is that of the purchasing group who must ensure that copies of software in use are licensed and licenses are managed as mandated by each vendor.

The solution supports additional granular control including individuals who are automatically approved for all software (useful for IT or QA staff tasked with testing and deploying the applications), a fallback address in case the user’s manager is not defined in Active Directory, as well as combinations of the above scenarios – a common one being manager based approval with purchasing/license manager based notification.

Approvals, or rejections, and request tracking are provided using a separate IIS web site that is deployed as part of the solution and the solution leverages native SCCM functionality to provide auditing of approvals as well as maintain all other SCCM security controls. In addition, the tool provides customizable email templates for notification emails sent to the approvers as well as the requesting user once the application has been approved or denied.

While it is not rare to find specific components within Microsoft products that are missing key functionality needed by most clients, it is extremely rare to find an elegant and low-cost solution to address the problem. This is one of those rare solutions.

This post was created in collaboration with Greg Rhodes and Rand Morimoto.

There are a lot of collaboration solutions available today. Whether users are simply talking, chatting, sharing documents, co-editing documents or participating in a real time meeting, there is a large spectrum of available solutions. From traditional solutions (like phone and email) sold by well known vendors and provided by the workplace to new solutions from younger vendors that seek to disrupt the existing landscape for collaboration solutions, IT departments and users have a lot to choose from. Furthermore, since many of the new solution are offered free of charge (either for a full or limited version), users can select to try and even implement solutions such as Dropbox, Trello, Skype  on their own with no assistance from IT.

The result is that users in most organizations have many collaboration tools that can be used for a specific purpose or use case, some of which may not be provided by IT or even known to IT. And while empowering users to select tools that are appropriate for their use case is a valuable goal, too many collaboration tools tend to cause mass confusion, especially when users who need to collaborate may be using different tools and platforms. The end user experience, therefore, is a mess with users not knowing which tool to use for which purpose, which tools are best to use for a specific user/department/location as well as users not being trained or well versed in the tools they need to use. In addition to confusion dominating the end user experience, this situation can introduce a lot of risk to the business as vital business information is stored in locations that IT is not aware and that have no governance controls and inadequate security controls.

The solution to the problem is a clear strategic plan for collaboration tools within the organization. Before I outline the key steps used to arrive at this strategy and to implement the strategy, let’s do a quick review of the categories and use cases for collaboration tools that are relevant to most organizations today:

  • The old school tools – email, file shares and phone
  • Advanced file sharing – cloud based solutions and document management (workflows, retention, records) – examples here include SharePoint, LiveLink, DropBox or Box.com
  • Real time communication – chat, voice/video over IP using tools like Jabber, Call Manager or Lync
  • Real time document collaboration – real time editing of documents using solutions such as Google Docs or Office Web Apps
  • Enterprise social network – persistent chat and discussion threads with user controlled membership and participation – examples include Chatter, Jive or Yammer
  • Project oversight tools – project submission, tracking, project collaboration workspaces using platforms such as Project Server

Given the broad nature of the above use cases and of collaboration in general, these are the key components to a successful effort to standardize and simplify enterprise collaboration tools while balancing functionality and user experience:

  • Identify the use cases that are important to your business

Not every organization requires every use case to conduct business. Determining which scenarios are needed for the organization and prioritizing those establishes the organization’s collaboration requirements and serves as a starting point for any related efforts. This is especially vital for scenarios that require advanced tools that can be more costly or complex to implement.

  • Align requirements for each area with business units

Given the user facing nature of all collaboration solutions, the requirements definition exercise must include representatives of key business areas. A slick and cutting edge solution that is approved by IT is of minimal value if it doesn’t meet the needs of sales, engineering or customer support. This alignment process must occur throughout the effort with business user participating in requirement gathering, product demos, POC testing and finally training development and execution.

  • Create a collaboration usage policy

Any efforts to address collected requirements must be accompanied by a clear usage policy that identifies to users what is expected of them with regards to management and custody of the organization’s data. Since some users will no doubt prefer solutions other than those provided by the organization, it is important to clarify what the policy is regarding the use of alternative solutions as well as the process for requesting that IT consider changes to existing solution offerings. This policy serves to guide users to acceptable collaboration practices as well as protect the organization from the inherent risk in disseminating enterprise data through unapproved channels, often known as data leakage.

  • Inventory purchased solutions

As the effort shifts to the tactical task of leveraging the requirements to develop and implement suitable solutions, a first step is to review and understand what collaboration solutions have already been purchased by the organization and the degree to which they have been implemented. Since some solutions may have been purchased and deployed without any involvement by IT, something that’s quite simple to do for cloud solutions, the financial impact to this step can be quite significant. Gaining visibility to enterprise assets and aligning those with proposed solutions and initiatives can not only reduce the cost of the overall effort but also greatly speed up the introduction of better functionality for all users.

  • Implement technical changes

The implementation phase includes modifications to existing solutions and deployment of new solutions to meet business requirements. This phase will typically be executed in stages starting with the highest priority changes and moving down the list. Also, given that in almost any organizations that are departments or workgroups with specialized needs, the implementation phase should start by focusing on solutions that are suitable for the large majority of users (the 80%) and then create a process to review and finding suitable solutions for specialized needs throughout the organization (the 20%).

  • Educate users

The best solutions and most innovative tools are of little value if users don’t understand when and how to use them. While many modern solution tout themselves as user friendly and ever self-explanatory, there tremendous value in user education around selecting the right tool for the right job and using each tool correctly. This is especially true in an enterprise setting where the organization usually places certain requirements or limitations on how tool can and should be used. It’s also important to note that education is not a one-time effort and must include initial education, new hire education and ongoing refreshers.

  • Continually evaluate and improve

As with any program based on business requirements and a rapidly changing landscape, the collaboration framework within an organization must be reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that the goals of the initial implementation were met and that the framework continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of the business as well as incorporate new and better solutions in the market place.

If you only take away one key point from this post, make it about the prioritization of aligning IT with the business. The IT department of 2014 must ensure that any initiatives, especially those that are user facing, are closely aligned with the business to ensure that business problems are solved, business goals are met, users are engaged and productive on IT platforms and users/managers can provide feedback to allow IT to correct course as needed.

Following the above approach may not make every user happy but it will help strike a balance between user satisfaction, team productivity, cost and business benefit.