For Part II of this article, click here

For any product or project life-cycle, issues from end-users and workers are inevitable. Any business processes that require the organization or team to track a high volume of issues or tickets, such as customer help-desk, sales leads or project activities, needs a defined and structured methodology of issues collection, assignment, deployment and resolution.  This is where an issue tracking system can prove indispensable and blessing to support staffs. An organization or team can benefit a lot if these issues are identified and recorded, in a way that allows qualitative analysis for improving the product or service, in the long run.

Using SharePoint for Issue Tracking – For organizations that already have invested in Microsoft SharePoint platforms for collaboration and sharing, support team can easily implement a simple issue tracking list and exploit the SharePoint inbuilt tracking and workflow capabilities to track issues and risks throughout the product life cycle. Such SharePoint based issue tracking list is good enough for teams that receive phone calls about product and service issues. A technician can simply log a new ticket within the SharePoint list, and key in the information as per the phone conversation. Using the SharePoint workflows, automated notification can also be sent out to the assigned technician.

Limitation of SharePoint based Issue Tracking – But for organizations that rely on emails partially or wholly, it is a lot of inconvenience and hard work. Because, there is no direct and easy way to source the ticket information from your emails, except to resort to copy-paste trick, which is time consuming and laborious, and not to mention, the precious human resources needed for data gathering. Moreover, the inbuilt issue tracking list template in SharePoint is only good for basic tracking requirement and lacks the automation and sophistication, to function as an effective help-desk system.

Besides, Microsoft Outlook integration of SharePoint is limited, and does not provide the capabilities to connect and export to a SharePoint list at the item level. One of the important goals for a help-desk is staying on top on the growing amount of support request emails from end-users. But without an organized and structured link between Outlook and SharePoint, caller and problem information from Outlook mails cannot be added or updated to SharePoint tickets in a timely manner. This can lead to delay in response time and even support requests falling through the crack. These limitations prevent many help-desk teams from implementing an effective SharePoint based issue tracking system.

Connecting Outlook to SharePoint based Issue Tracking – To exploit the sharing and collaboration features of SharePoint for Issue tracking purpose, we need an easy way to source the problem, callers metadata information and attachments from emails stored in client application such as Microsoft Outlook, and feed to the trouble tickets in the SharePoint list. Keeping this requirement in mind, I have invested considerable time to design a generic solution that can be used by every team and organizations. The outcome is an Outlook add-in that enables to create and maintain a link between Outlook and your Issue Tracking SharePoint lists, such that you and other technicians can easily raise trouble tickets from emails from within your Microsoft Outlook, in a single click, or even better, automatically (if you have set Issue Tracker to watch and process incoming emails, that is) ‘Issue Tracker for Outlook & SharePoint‘ runs within Outlook.exe process and extend the functionalities of Outlook, by allowing custom actions to be triggered and additional feature sets and capabilities to be implemented on top of the host application (Outlook).

So How Does It Work? – The team edition of ‘Issue Tracker for Outlook and SharePoint’ is designed as a groupware solution i.e., multiple technicians working on the same set of tickets in the administrator chosen SharePoint lists. So, we have an administrative installation and configuration, only needed to be performed by the help-desk manager. And a client installation, that is required to be installed by every technician on their system. Being a groupware, the help-desk settings and configurations data need to be stored on a central repository. Because your help-desk staffs can be scattered in different geographical locations, and might not have access to the company’s local network remotely, using a network database or shared folder won’t be feasible. Instead, in Issue Tracker system, the help-desk configuration and settings data are stored in a special SharePoint list (having the name ‘TeamIssueTrackerSettings’) which is accessible to all help-desk staffs, on the local network, VPN, HTTP, WAN.

From within Outlook, using the administrative add-in for Issue Tracker, help-desk manager can choose the destination SharePoint lists where trouble ticket raised by other technicians would be stored. The fields of the email and each of the chosen SharePoint list are then mapped, so that you have control over what and which data goes to the ticket.  These chosen SharePoint lists are the deployed to all the technicians in their Outlook.

To allow technicians to add extra meaningful information to trouble tickets, apart from the ones extracted from the email, help-desk manager can maintain and deploy a list of problem categories and types, statuses and any number of custom fields drop down values. These help-desk specific fields would be then available in the Outlook application of each technician.

Ticket input form in Outlook

Screenshot: Ticket input form in Outlook

To raise a trouble ticket, simply select one or more mail items, and Choose and click the particular SharePoint list under which the ticket item will be generated. When you do this, relevant metadata such as caller and problem details, attachments etc. will be extracted from the email to the ticket item. You can add further details to the ticket to be generated such as, the technician that will be responsible for solving the ticket, due date, by which the issue should be resolved, and problem category, type and status and any number of custom metadata.

Once a trouble ticket is generated successfully in the chosen SharePoint list, information regarding the ticket, such as the ticket ID, data/time and the URL to the SharePoint ticket are tagged and embedded into the email item in Outlook. This not only provides an easy way to go to the ticket item in the SharePoint site directly, but also prevents other technicians from generating a duplicate ticket, from the same email (a possible scenario on shared mailboxes and mail-enabled public folders).

In the subject of the email from which a ticket was raised, a tracking code containing the prefix code of the SharePoint list and the ticket ID is embedded.  For example, [CMA-4]. This is done so for tracking purpose on subsequent email conversations that might happen. As long as this phrase is intact when sending out response to caller, or when caller replies back to the help-desk, Issue Tracker System will automatically track and associate it with the correct SharePoint list and ticket item. This means, the ticket item and description field will be updated live automatically, as and when the email is sent out or received. This greatly enhances the productivity of the help-desk because, no technicians are required anymore to monitor the mailbox for new replies from caller, nor there is need to add and update the new information to the relevant ticket manually. Issue Tracker system does that for you automatically, to provide a commentary on exactly what happened and the series of actions taken to achieve resolution.

If you have a dedicated mailbox only used for support purposes, you can automate the whole process of ticketing experience from incoming emails. You can set Issue Tracker to monitor your mailbox and automatically raise trouble tickets from incoming emails, without requiring your intervention.


The general applicability of such application is immense and more so, it overcomes the limitation of email integration, or the lack of it, in SharePoint based issue tracking system, by linking Outlook to SharePoint. In being able to raise tickets from their emails in the comfort of Outlook, Issue Tracker system empowers help-desk staffs to focus their valuable time and efforts into resolving the issues rather than spending on the technical processes of gathering tickets and doing manual tasks.

Refer to videos below to demonstrate the capabilities and feature sets of Issue Tracker.

Part-I: Administrative Installation & Configuration

Part-II: Technician Installation & Raising tickets to SharePoint

Part II – Overcoming the limitation of SharePoint based Issue Tracking system

Product Summary:
Title: Issue Tracker for Outlook & SharePoint
Product page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/
Download page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/Download.asp
Video page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/TutorialClips.asp

 

In most businesses and corporate houses, staffs and managers rely heavily on email communication with their clients, stakeholders or team members. Along with the email are flood of document files that get embedded as attachments. Over time, as emails get accumulated in the recipient’s mailbox, there comes a plethora of problems for both the IT administrators and for the general users alike. Sluggish performance of Microsoft Outlook, email taking a long time to open or delivered, frequent corruption of mails and attachments and even worse, exceeding the mailbox size restriction are some of the obvious complains most IT managers are accustomed to, from their staffs. These symptoms become more pronounced as mailbox data store size increases. And this is particularly of a concern for small businesses, that has limited IT resources and skills at their disposal. And for those businesses that have their mailboxes in the cloud, space is at a premium and if proper optimization and attachments policy are not implemented, the cost of cloud service might actually prove expensive in the long run. So, the question is, what can one do to prevent breaching mailbox size restriction? Is there any effective solution (and cheaper too) that you or small businesses can implement to optimize their mailboxes and extract the maximum usage out of the available size?

The answer is ‘Yes’. Outlook performance and mailbox size go hand in hand, and in 90% of the case, the sluggishness or breach in mailbox size restriction is primarily to be blamed to the presence of vast number attachments, ranging from small Kilobytes to large Megabytes, and even in hundred Megabytes. There is also a problem with redundant attachments being accumulated in the Sent Items folder because a copy of each message that you send is saved underneath it. This not only fills up the mailbox but also increases the size of Outlook data file. Most IT or Exchange administrators would recommend to move old emails to another data store. Even though that might ease the problem for a while, this is only a short term workaround. What most of us failed to realize is the size proportion between the email itself and its associated attachments.

So, the long term solution to frequent mailbox limit breach is not ‘Archiving’, but to do away and disconnect attachments from the mail items altogether. And store them externally from Outlook, and still maintain the hard link between the mail and their associated attachments. Besides, mailbox space are pretty expensive when compared to a local disk, and files and documents load up faster from local folder too than loading up from the Outlook data store. So this advantage itself favors the argument for moving attachments away from Outlook. But, if you had expected Microsoft Outlook would offer a wizard or tool to do just this, then you are in for a big surprise. There is no such feature built-in to Microsoft Outlook. This glaring devoid for an effective mechanism for mailbox/Outlook PST size optimization in the world’s most popular email client comes as a big disappointment for normal and power workers alike.

But nevertheless, Necessity is the mother of Invention. And that is exactly what had happened and that is why this particular blog has being written for – an add-in solution for Microsoft Outlook that is designed to bridge the gap between mailbox optimization and Outlook, by performing the detachment and storage of attachments outside of Outlook with complete user transparency, and yet still offer seamless integration of external attachments to emails in Outlook.

Attachment Manager add-in in Outlook 2010 fluent ribbon

Attachment Manager for Outlook not only helps you to save precious space on your PST or Exchange mailbox, but also contributes in making Outlook run much faster with better performance, and removes the requirement for constantly archiving duties. Furthermore, at times when there is a need to move the attachments back to original mail item, like when replying or forwarding, Attachment Manager can automatically re-attach the associated files from the local disk back to the original email.

Another very useful feature (for which many users had appreciated) is the level of automation Attachment Manager can operate. Like for instance, user can set Attachment Manager to monitor and track any number of Outlook folders and shared mailboxes to automatically detach attachments from new incoming emails, without any intervention from the user. This enables user to focus on their tasks and not worry about mailbox space running out, which in turn, results in better Outlook performance and response. In short, automation makes you productive.

Here is the official video demonstration that was released for version 3. This flash video walk through you on how to configure and use Attachment Manager in Microsoft Outlook 2010.

If you find the video above a bit distorted or blurred because of the restricted size, you can view the actual size (800×600) here.

So, with Attachment Manager, you have the flexibility of reverting back to storing attachments to the emails, or detaching to an external repository. In either case, you continue to have access to the associated attachments from the email and that is what user experience is all about.

You may wonder what other benefits may possibly be there for storing attachments outside of Outlook. In fact, there are many useful application of it. Apart from documents and files loading faster from a local disk than that from Outlook data store, having the required documents on to a shared network folder make it a sensible choice for sharing documents and files among team members. And as network folders are seldom disconnected, administrator can take comfort that critical business documents are available all the time. Another aspect is the instant accessibility from the file folder. This might not always be the case for Outlook, as it is prone to corruption or going awry, and when it does that, attachments and other business critical documents might not just show up, or in the worst case, might get lost in the ever growing mailbox data store. Also remember that fact that there is an inbuilt security mechanism built-in to newer Microsoft Outlook (starting Outlook 2003) that prevents certain attachments such as .exe, mdb etc. And you may counter this by saying, it is a required feature against virus and malicious activities, and I would agree. But the point is about having access to files in Outlook in a trusted environment, which most of the corporate and business networks are.

I hit upon the idea of developing this particular add-in solution (read it as ‘Attachment Manager for Outlook’), when I started working on Exchange Server in Windows 2003 4 years back. But it was not till another 3 years that I finally got serious into its development. Since its first release, many organizations and individuals have adopted it, and in fact, there has been increasing demand for new enhancements and features, which lead to the launch of the current version (version 3). The widespread adoption of this attachments solution looks very promising, considering that Microsoft Exchange based mailboxes form a large chunk of mail solution for most business and corporate entities, and that has been a force of motivation on me to write this particular blog and share my perspective.

For those of you interested in learning more on ‘Attachment Manager for Outlook’ or possibly evaluate it , refer to the product home page at http://www.assistmyteam.net/AttachmentManager/

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