I vividly remember the iconic scene from the 1995 box office hit Apollo 13 where a team of NASA engineers gathered around a table with a collection of mishmash spaceship junk. From this collection, the team had to create a square air filter to fit in a round receptacle so that the astronauts would not asphyxiate on CO2 in space. It’s an intense, life-or-death scenario of literally making a square peg fit in a round hole, where “failure is not an option.”

Working as a business analyst for our federal government clients means that budget, time, and resource constraints almost always play major role in any development effort. This challenge requires our team to use bit of ingenuity and a mixed bag of tools to create a solution for our customers.

One of my most recent projects required a unique approach to solve a long-standing problem. My client was a human resources manager who maintained a large SharePoint site covering a range of topics from teleworking to heath care. The site contained numerous SharePoint web pages and document libraries for storing hundreds of standard forms, memos and instructional guides.

[pullquote]The end result was an inefficient site and a frustrated staff that didn’t know how to tame the wild beast the site had become.[/pullquote]Unfortunately, the site was a Russian nesting doll of sites and sub sites with no clear navigation structure. Hundreds of web part pages were filled with information and with no meaningful relationship to one another. The disjointed organization meant searching or tagging keywords was impossible. In addition, the outdated content often made embarrassing references to people who haven’t held office in nearly 10 years. The end result was an inefficient site and a frustrated staff that didn’t know how to tame the wild beast the site had become.

The client needed a complete revamp of the site, along with more tools to help him and his lean team of employees maintain the vast amount of material. At the time of the project’s inception, we had no developer resources, so I had to provide an “out of the box” solution using built-in SharePoint web parts and a few third-party plugins. The client also set a short timeline of less than two months to complete the project and go live with the re-tooled site.

One of our third-party tools gives us the ability to present content in the form of “articles” instead of pages and has built-in capabilities such as a tag cloud, tree views and article comment control. I quickly created a sample site to show my client what his human resources site would look like as a knowledge base with articles instead of web pages.

It was a tough sell at first. The client wasn’t convinced that the new layout and design would be any easier for him and his team to maintain. However, we sat down and discussed how certain tools — such as the tree views — would help his team keep the articles fresh and organized. The final step in selling him on the new site was adding some snazzy graphics and using CSS styling to ensure a consistent look and feel so that his team could really focus on the content.

Converting hundreds of web pages to knowledge base articles was about as enjoyable as sorting a bucket of rainbow sprinkles by color. It was a painstaking process to sift through years of outdated information, to tag articles, re-categorize subjects, etc.

Two months later and on-time, we were able to deploy a brand-new site to production using a combination of tools:

  • COTS products to provide the main functionality of the site and present the content in an article format.
  • SharePoint Designer to brand the site with a new color scheme.
  • Style classes to enforce consistent layout for every knowledge base article.
  • Creative configuration to provide features not available in the COTS solution, such as unique URLs for each article, navigation control, etc.
  • JavaScript-based homepage with sliders and list-driven navigation.

The feedback on the enhanced HR site has been overwhelmingly positive. SharePoint’s built-in reporting tool shows a dramatic increase in article views in comparison to the old site. And by dramatic, I mean an increase from zero page views to hundreds from a relatively small customer base. The success has also inspired the team to take a more proactive approach to keeping the site current and adding new articles covering topics not previously tackled, which will ultimately drive more traffic to the site…especially now that the users know that it has useful and updated information.

The site may not have brought astronauts safely back to earth, but the process we used was the same: Combining available tools with a little originality to deliver a high-quality solution.